5 types of headache and their locations

23rd January, 2023 • 15 min read

If you’re dealing with headaches, you're probably wondering what’s causing them. There are lots of different kinds of headaches – from tension headaches and dehydration headaches to migraines and even headaches after sex. Here’s what you need to know about what might be causing yours, plus the headache red flags that should send you to your doctor’s office.

What exactly is a headache?

“Headaches are very common, and the word is a catch-all for any type of pain or discomfort in your head or face,” explains Dr Ann Nainan, family doctor and Healthily expert. “Headache locations, type of pain and severity can vary a lot.”

Although it can feel like a headache is coming directly from your brain, the brain doesn’t have any nerve fibers that are sensitive to pain. Instead, a headache tends to come from:

  • the network of nerves that stretches across your scalp
  • nerves in your face, mouth or throat
  • muscles in your head, neck and shoulders
  • blood vessels across the surface and at the base of your brain

Who is most likely to get headaches?

“As headaches are so common, most people will get them at some time or another,” says Dr Ann. But it’s thought that women are twice as likely to have them as men.

According to figures from the National Center for Health Statistics, about 1 in 4 women aged 18 to 44 had a severe headache or migraine in a 3-month period in 2018.

“Lots of people think of headaches as minor health niggles, but we think it’s time to take them seriously,” says Dr Ann. No one should be putting up with something that affects their daily life, from work to sex and exercise.

Types of headache and their locations

Here’s the lowdown on different types of headache, how to work out what’s causing yours, and what your doctor or pharmacist can do to help you.

Migraine vs headache

A migraine is a distinct type of headache, which is thought to affect about 1 in 5 women.

It usually has these symptoms:

  • moderate or severe pain, which feels throbbing and tends to be on 1 side of your head
  • nausea or vomiting
  • sensitivity to light and/or sound
  • seeing wavy lines or flashing lights beforehand – these sight changes are known as ‘aura’. You can have migraines with or without aura, and also get aura without a headache (known as a silent migraine)

How often you get migraines can vary a lot – they can happen several times a week, or you can go years without an attack.

Migraines have a lot of overlap with other types of headache, and are often underdiagnosed.

To work out whether they might be an issue for you, read our in-depth article about migraines. Or if you already know you get them, find out about migraine treatment.

Tension headache

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. Tell-tale signs include:

  • a headache that comes on gradually
  • pain on both sides of your head
  • dull pain, which can feel like a tight band around your head
  • mild to moderate pain – not usually severe enough to stop you doing things
  • pain that may spread to or come from your neck

Unlike a migraine, you won’t usually feel nauseous, vomit, or be sensitive to light or have any changes to your sight.

What causes it?

Stress can be a factor in tension headaches. But it’s not just emotional tension – muscle tension can cause this type of headache, too. “Muscle contractions in your head and neck are thought to contribute, but doctors still don’t know why some people get them,” says Dr Ann.

Your family history (genetics) and how you live (environment) may also play a part. It’s thought that they can be triggered by things such as too much caffeine or not getting enough sleep.

Self-care for tension headaches

There are some general self-care steps that can help treat and prevent tension headaches. They mainly involve having a regular routine and managing stress, such as:

  • trying to go to bed and get up at roughly the same times each day
  • doing at least 30 minutes of activity every day
  • eating regular meals
  • trying relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation
  • drinking enough water (staying hydrated)

These tips may also help with some other types of headache. You can find more self-care tips for different kinds of headache in how to get rid of a headache.

What can your doctor do?

If tension headaches are getting in the way of your life, don’t just put up with them, even if you’ve been getting them for a long time. You may actually have another type of headache – such as migraine – that needs different treatment.

If your headaches disrupt your life, you need to take medicine for them more than twice a week, or your headache feels different from usual, it’s time to see your doctor. They can:

  • figure out what type of headache you have (usually based on your symptoms)
  • give you tailored advice on preventing and treating your headaches
  • prescribe effective painkillers
  • advise on other therapies (depending on the cause), such as relaxation techniques, physiotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy(CBT).

Hormone headache

Changes in your hormone levels can trigger hormone headaches. For example, they can happen just before or during your period – sometimes known as ‘menstrual migraines’ – during your pill-free week if you take the combined contraceptive pill, or in the run-up to the menopause (perimenopause). The key is that they happen at certain times.

What causes it?

A drop in the hormone estrogen is thought to be the main trigger for hormone headaches.
Other possible causes include:

  • heavy, painful periods – which may be why some women have more headaches in the perimenopause, when periods can come more often and be heavier
  • hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – some types can make hormone changes worse, triggering migraines

What can your doctor do?

They can diagnose the headache based on your symptoms, and prescribe suitable painkillers.

If you think your headaches may be connected to the contraceptive pill or HRT, they may be able to offer alternatives, such as a different type of pill, or an HRT gel or patch – these release hormones more steadily, so are less likely to trigger a headache.

It’s important to speak to your doctor if you’re taking the combined contraceptive pill and have migraines (especially with aura). This can put you at higher risk of complications, so they may recommend you use a different type of contraception instead.

Painkiller headache

Also known as ‘medication overuse’ or ‘rebound’ headaches, a painkiller headache can happen when you take painkillers for a headache too often – for more than 2 days a week on a regular basis.

What causes it?

It’s fine to take medicine for headaches from time to time. But if you take painkillers too regularly, your body starts to become used to them. And when they wear off, the withdrawal can trigger a ‘rebound’ headache.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • painkillers such as opioids (including codeine), triptans (often given to treat migraines) or ergotamines are known to cause rebound headaches if they’re taken on 10 days or more per month
  • simpler painkillers such as acetaminophen (paracetamol), aspirin or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can also cause rebound headaches if they’re taken on 15 days or more per month
  • this includes things you can get from a pharmacy that combine painkilling ingredients with other substances, such as caffeine (having lots of caffeine during the day, as well as taking painkillers, can also contribute to rebound headaches)
  • any painkiller that contains a sedative called butalbital can also cause headaches

You can also develop rebound headaches if you have headaches in general and take painkillers regularly for other conditions (such as arthritis). But this is less likely if you don’t already get headaches.

What can your doctor do?

The solution to painkiller headaches is simple, but challenging: after speaking to your doctor, you need to stop or reduce the painkillers. Which probably means putting up with worse headaches for a short time.

Your doctor can help by looking at other underlying causes of your headaches, and helping you wean yourself off painkillers. In the long term, it may be that your headaches need to be treated or managed differently.

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches are extremely painful headaches that come in bouts known as ‘cluster periods’. You may have no headaches for months or even years, then have regular episodes for a few months.

A cluster headache might wake you in the night with intense pain on 1 side of your head or around 1 of your eyes. Your eye might be red and teary, too.

Despite being very painful, they’re not life-threatening.

What causes it?

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes cluster headaches, but here’s what we do know:

  • it’s thought that they’re linked to activity in a part of your brain called the hypothalamus
  • people who smoke seem to be more likely to get them
  • there’s sometimes a family connection, so genetics may be involved
  • men are generally more likely to get them
  • in recent years, scientists have found increasing numbers of women are affected. This could be down to women being correctly diagnosed after previously being told their headaches were migraines. Or it could be that lifestyle factors that may be connected – such as stress and smoking – are now affecting more women

What can your doctor do?

Your doctor can diagnose cluster headaches, rule out other causes for your headaches and give you treatments.

Prevention is key, and your doctor can prescribe a few different medicines to help prevent attacks, including steroids to reduce inflammation and a medicine called verapamil to relax your blood vessels.

Your doctor can also prescribe treatments to help during a cluster headache, such as:

  • high-dose oxygen breathed in through a mask – this can help stop or reduce an attack
  • a nasal spray containing a medicine called sumatriptan – this helps to narrow blood vessels in your brain and ease symptoms

Sinus headache

A sinus headache causes pain and pressure in your face – around your eyes, cheeks and forehead – as well as a throbbing feeling in your head. Your face may feel tender, and you can also have an aching sensation in your teeth.

You may also have a stuffy nose (congestion) with thick, green or yellow mucus, and lose your sense of smell.

What causes it?

A true sinus headache is caused by swelling (inflammation) in the sinus cavities in your face. This is known as sinusitis, which is usually caused by a virus such as a cold.

However, research suggests that sinus headache-like symptoms are often caused by migraines. Some studies suggest that 9 in 10 self-diagnosed sinus headaches are actually migraines.

So here’s how to tell the difference:

  • unlike migraines, headaches caused by sinusitis last longer than a few days
  • unlike sinus headaches, migraines often cause sensitivity to light and noise, and nausea or vomiting

What can your doctor do?

First up, they can work out if you have a sinus headache, migraine, or another type of headache. The right diagnosis is important for getting the right treatment.

Migraine symptoms can change over time. So even if things like face pain and stuffiness seem ‘new’, they may just be different migraine symptoms.

If you do have sinusitis, you’ll probably need treatments such as a nasal douche or steroid nasal spray, which you can get from your pharmacist. If your sinuses are infected with bacteria, your doctor may also prescribe antibiotics.

Dehydration headache

Not drinking enough water can sometimes cause headaches. Dehydration headaches aren’t seen as headaches in their own right – they’re not a diagnosis. But experts think that being low on fluids can trigger other headaches you may be likely to get, such as migraines or tension headaches.

What causes it?

Doctors still don’t fully understand exactly how dehydration causes headaches. One theory involves reduced blood flow to your brain. Another is that a lack of water causes your brain to shrink (contract) slightly, and this causes pain.

What can your doctor do?

It’s important to speak to your doctor about regular headaches, so they can help you figure out what’s going on, and whether not drinking enough water might be playing a role.

If it is, staying hydrated is likely to be your best option. If there are also other things causing your headaches, they may be able to prescribe medicines to help.

Headache after sex or exercise

Sometimes called an ‘exertion’ headache, this can happen after any burst of physical activity, including sex.

Typically, a headache after exercise affects both sides of your head, feels throbbing and happens during or after strenuous activity.

What causes it?

Doctors don’t know for sure, but it might be connected to blood vessels in your brain. It could be that exercise causes these blood vessels to expand – something that can lead to headaches.

Some people also find that headaches after exercise are more likely in hot weather, or at high altitudes.

What can your doctor do?

If you have exertion headaches, it’s important to see a doctor. They can check whether exercise is the main cause, or whether you have another kind of headache that’s triggered by exercise – such as migraine. They can also rule out any serious underlying causes.

Eyestrain headache

Trying to focus on something when you have problems with your eyesight – such as being short-sighted or long-sighted – can sometimes cause headaches.

For example, you might notice a headache after you’ve been looking at a computer screen or reading a book.

What causes it?

Eyestrain can be caused by trying to concentrate on something like a screen for too long, or trying to read in low light.

But experts think eyestrain headaches might not be that common, and are actually more likely to have other causes.

What can your doctor do?

See an eye doctor for an eye test if you think you have an eyestrain headache. They can check your sight and the health of your eyes, and prescribe glasses to correct your vision if you need them. They may also prescribe treatment such as eye drops.

Headache red flags

If you’re wondering when to worry about a headache, remember that headaches are very common. Usually they make you feel unwell, then pass, rather than being a sign of something serious.

But certain symptoms can suggest an underlying cause, or mean you have a type of headache that needs treatment to stop it affecting your life.

You should see a doctor as soon as possible if:

  • you have a constant headache, it keeps coming back, or it doesn't improve with simple painkillers
  • you notice a change in the pattern of your headaches, or they’re steadily getting worse
  • you notice other symptoms, such as changes in your personality or voice, or ear pain or discharge
  • you’re over 50, or have a history of cancer or an impaired immune system
  • you’re pregnant and have new, changing or worsening headaches
  • you get headaches when you exercise
  • you think you have cluster headaches
  • You should go to the emergency department if you have a combination of these symptoms:
  • your headache is very severe, has come on suddenly, or wakes you up at night
  • your headache gets worse with coughing, or changes when you’re lying down or standing up
  • you have pain in your chest or feel short of breath
  • you have headaches after hitting your head or injuring your neck
  • you have a headache and symptoms such as confusion, memory loss, slurred speech, dizziness, weakness, numbness, seizures, changes in your sight, eye pain, or redness of swelling around your face or eyes

Your health questions answered

Can natural remedies cure headaches?

“If you’re getting headaches regularly, it’s understandable if you want to try supplements to help,” says Dr Ann. “Some people try coenzyme Q10, feverfew, magnesium, vitamin B2 or Boswellia. But at the moment, there isn’t enough research for us to be able to say these have any effect on headaches. And if you do try them, always follow the instructions, as taking too much could be harmful. There are lots of lifestyle steps that can help to prevent and treat headaches, so you may not need to rely on medication – but these tend to be more around having a routine, getting enough sleep and eating regularly. Try those things rather than spending money on unproven supplements.”

Find out more about self-care for different types of headaches.

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.