Most headaches are not serious. In many cases, you can treat your headache at home.
Complete our self-help guide to check your symptoms and find out what to do next.
How you can help your headache yourself
- take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
- drink plenty of fluids
- relax (if stress is the cause)
- take regular exercise
When to get professional advice
Your local pharmacy can provide:
- advice about headaches
- treatments to help relieve headaches
Non-urgent advice: Speak to a GP if:
- treatments recommended by your pharmacist do not relieve your headache
- your headache is getting worse despite taking painkillers
- painful or frequent headaches affect your daily activities or cause you to miss work
Urgent advice: Phone 111 if:
- your headache does not go away and gets worse over time
- your headache is triggered suddenly by coughing, laughing, sneezing, changing posture, or physical effort
You have a headache and:
- a sore scalp
- jaw pain while chewing
- you feel weak
Immediate action required: Phone 999 if:
- your headache occurs suddenly and is very severe – it may feel like a blinding pain
- your headache occurs after a severe head injury
You have an extremely painful headache and:
- slurred speech or memory loss
- a very high temperature, feel hot and shivery, and have a stiff neck or a rash
- drowsiness or confusion
- vision problems
- severe pain and redness in one of your eyes
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They're 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.
Normally, tension headaches are not severe enough to prevent you doing everyday activities. They usually last for 30 minutes to several hours, but can last for several days.
What causes a tension headache?
The exact cause is unclear, but tension headaches have been linked to things such as:
- poor posture
- skipping meals
How to treat a tension headache
You can usually treat tension headaches with painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. Lifestyle changes may also help, for example:
- getting regular sleep
- reducing stress
- staying well hydrated
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:
- increased sensitivity to light or sound
Migraines can stop you carrying out your normal daily activities. They usually last at least a couple of hours. Some people find they need to stay in bed for days at a time.
How to treat migraines
Most people can treat their migraines with over-the-counter medication from the pharmacist.
If your migraines are severe, you may need to be prescribed stronger medication by your GP. This may be able to relieve and prevent your migraines.
Read further information about migraines
Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache. They occur in clusters for a month or two at a time around the same time of year.
Cluster headaches are excruciatingly painful. They cause intense pain around one eye, and often occur with other symptoms, such as a:
- watering or red eye
- blocked or runny nose
Pharmacy medications don't usually ease the symptoms of a cluster headache. Your GP 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. But, 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.
You may be able to help reduce headaches associated with your menstrual cycle by:
- reducing your stress levels
- having a regular sleeping pattern
- making sure you do not miss meals
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
10 May 2023
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