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16th January, 20203 min read

When to worry about a headache

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According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), most headaches can be treated at home, but figures released by The BMJ show that approximately 3% of UK adults visit a doctor because of a headache every year.

So, is this 3% doing the ‘right’ thing?

Here’s how to work out how serious your headache is and if it needs medical attention.

What triggered your headache?

Headaches can develop for a number of reasons. Some headaches are brought on by stress, problems with your eyesight or dehydration. Others are the result of drinking too much alcohol or a symptom of a minor illness, like the common cold.

Primary headaches like migraines, cluster headaches or tension headaches can be triggered by bright lights or poor posture, and there’s even evidence to suggest that certain types of headaches can be brought on by changes in the weather or the chemicals found in some household cleaners.

Most headaches can be managed at home, but you may need to see a doctor if the pain lasts for a long time or gets worse after taking painkillers.

It’s usually safe to treat a headache using non-prescription pain medication, bed rest or relaxation techniques.

Some headaches can be a symptom of a more serious underlying medical condition such as giant cell arteritis or meningitis. These headaches (often called secondary headaches) need to be treated urgently by a medical professional.

Worrying symptoms

You should seek immediate medical attention if you have a headache and 1 or more of the following symptoms:

  • loss of vision
  • drowsiness, confusion or memory problems
  • a high temperature or fever that makes you feel hot and shivery
  • a stiff neck
  • a rash
  • unexplained vomiting
  • speech or balance problems
  • weakness or numbness on one side of your body
  • red or painful eyes

You should also seek immediate medical attention if:

  • your headache comes on suddenly and is extremely painful
  • you have a headache and recently suffered a serious head injury

Very sudden, severe headaches can be a sign that you’re suffering from bleeding on or around the brain.

Headaches with a fever, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, rashes or unexplained vomiting could be a sign that you’re suffering from meningitis, a serious bacterial infection that affects the brain and spinal cord.

You should visit an urgent care centre if you have a headache and a sore scalp, blurred vision or jaw pain, particularly during eating or chewing. These symptoms can be a sign that you’re suffering from giant cell arteritis, a serious medical condition that occurs when the arteries around the side of your head become swollen or inflamed.

Book an appointment with a doctor if:

  • the headache keeps coming back
  • the headache is interfering with your daily life
  • the headache doesn’t go away when you take pain medication
  • you have a headache and 1 or more of the following symptoms: sensitivity to bright lights, nausea or vomiting, a throbbing sensation at the front or side of your head

A doctor can diagnose the problem and offer treatment options to help you manage your headache.

You can find out more about managing mild-to-moderate headaches in this article on caring for a headache at home.

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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.