More than 10 million people in the UK get headaches regularly, making them one of the most common health complaints. But most aren't serious and are easily treated.
In many cases, you can treat your headaches at home with over-the-counter painkillers and lifestyle changes, such as getting more rest and drinking enough fluids.
However, it's a good idea to see your GP if your headaches aren't relieved by over-the-counter treatments, or if they're so painful or frequent that they affect your daily activities or are causing you to miss work.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and are what we think of as normal, "everyday" headaches. They feel like a constant ache that affects both sides of the head, as though a tight band is stretched around it.
A tension headache normally won't be severe enough to prevent you doing everyday activities. They usually last for 30 minutes to several hours, but can last for several days.
The exact cause is unclear, but tension headaches have been linked to things such as stress, poor posture, skipping meals and dehydration.
Tension headaches can usually be treated with ordinary painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. Lifestyle changes, such as getting regular sleep, reducing stress and staying well hydrated, may also help. If a headache is getting persistently worse despite taking painkillers then make an appointment to speak to your GP.
Migraines are less common than tension headaches. They're usually felt as a severe, throbbing pain at the front or side of the head. Some people also have other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraines tend to be more severe than tension headaches and can stop you carrying out your normal daily activities. They usually last at least a couple of hours, and some people find they need to stay in bed for days at a time.
Most people can treat their migraines successfully with over-the-counter medication. But if they're severe, you may need stronger medication that's only available on prescription. This may be able to relieve and prevent your migraines.
Read more about migraines
Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache that occur in clusters for a month or two at a time around the same time of year.
They're excruciatingly painful, causing intense pain around one eye, and often occur with other symptoms, such as a watering or red eye and a blocked or runny nose.
Pharmacy medications don't ease the symptoms of a cluster headache, but a doctor can prescribe specific treatments to ease the pain and help prevent further attacks.
Medication and painkiller headaches
Some headaches are a side effect of taking a particular medication. Frequent headaches can also be caused by taking too many painkillers. This is known as a painkiller or medication-overuse headache.
A medication-overuse headache will usually get better within a few weeks once you stop taking the painkillers that are causing it, although your pain may get worse for a few days before it starts to improve.
Headaches in women are often caused by hormones, and many women notice a link with their periods. The combined contraceptive pill, the menopause and pregnancy are also potential triggers.
Reducing your stress levels, having a regular sleeping pattern, and ensuring you don't miss meals may help reduce headaches associated with your menstrual cycle.
Other causes of headaches
Headaches can also have a number of other causes, including:
- drinking too much alcohol
- a head injury or concussion
- a cold or flu
- temporomandibular disorders – problems affecting the "chewing" muscles and the joints between the lower jaw and the base of the skull
- sinusitis – inflammation of the lining of the sinuses
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- sleep apnoea – a condition where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing
Could it be something serious?
In the vast majority of cases, a headache isn't a sign of a serious problem. But, rarely, it can be a symptom of a condition such as a stroke, meningitis, or a brain tumour.
A headache is more likely to be serious if:
- it occurs suddenly and is very severe – often described as a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before
- it doesn't go away and gets worse over time
- it occurs after a severe head injury
- it's triggered suddenly by coughing, laughing, sneezing, changes in posture, or physical exertion
- you have symptoms suggesting a problem with your brain or nervous system, including weakness, slurred speech, confusion, memory loss, and drowsiness
- you have additional symptoms, such as a high temperature (fever), a stiff neck, a rash, jaw pain while chewing, vision problems, a sore scalp, or severe pain and redness in one of your eyes
If you're concerned that your headache might be serious, you should seek immediate medical advice. Contact your GP or the NHS 24 111 service as soon as possible, or go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.