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When to See a Doctor for Your Headache

People get headaches all the time. This is why we always keep over-the-counter pain medications in our medicine cabinets. While several forms of headaches can be chronic and debilitating, most headaches are benign and they usually go away after resting, rehydrating, or taking simple analgesics. In these cases, doctors often focus more on headache prevention or pain management to help their patients live normal and relatively pain-free lives.

While most headaches are nothing to worry about, there are times when headaches can be a symptom of an underlying condition. These headaches are called secondary headaches. They are less common than primary headache conditions such as migraines and cluster headaches, but they are generally considered more dangerous. If caught early, most of these conditions can be treated. Once the underlying illness is treated or cured, the headaches will also stop.

Secondary headaches can be triggered by non-life threatening conditions such as the flu, hangovers, and sinus congestion; however, they can also be caused by serious conditions such as arterial tears, stroke, ruptured aneurysms, blocked blood vessels in the brain, meningitis, encephalitis, intracranial hematomas, and brain tumors. The headaches you experience can serve as a warning sign for you to go see a doctor. Oftentimes, a secondary headache does not merit a trip to the emergency room, but if you are also experiencing any of the symptoms listed below, it’s best that you seek emergency medical help immediately.

  • If you are experiencing a headache (mild to severe) after a head trauma or injury.
  • If your headache is so severe that it wakes you up at night.
  • If you experience a sudden severe headache also known as a thunderclap headache. This type of headache occurs suddenly and is often described by patients as the worst headache they’ve ever experienced.
  • If you experience a new type of headache, especially after the age of 55.
  • If your headache symptoms are getting progressively worse over time.
  • If you experience a migraine headache that lasts for more than 72 hours.
  • If you go through any of the following symptoms alongside your headaches:
    • High-grade fever (anything above 102 F or 93 C)
    • Blurry vision that remains unresolved even after the pain has subsided
    • Having trouble speaking or understanding speech
    • Feelings of weakness or numbness on one side of the body
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Dizziness
    • Seizures
    • Shortness of breath

Those who suffer from migraines, hangover headaches, or headaches that come with the flu often experience nausea and vomiting along with severe headaches. If your headache isn’t related to any of these conditions and you feel nauseous and can’t stop vomiting, it’s a good idea to go see a doctor immediately.

Treating headaches with over-the-counter pain medication is a common practice that works for most types of headaches; however, we must not take the pain and the symptoms we feel for granted. If you experience other symptoms aside from headaches or if your headache changes in any way, consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatement.