Headaches are very common. There is a wide variation in the type of pain you could experience with a headache, and how long it may last.

Different types of headache include:

  • tension headache
  • toxic headache
  • migraine
  • cluster headache.

Headaches can be triggered by stress, tiredness, hunger, eyestrain, noise or bright light.

Causes of headaches

  • The toxic effects of alcohol or other substances
  • An infection elsewhere in your body
  • Muscle tension
  • Inflamed arteries (which cause migraine or cluster headaches).

Most headaches are not a cause for worry, but occasionally they are a symptom of something serious.

Self care

If you know what causes your headaches (eg, alcohol, chocolate, cheese) it’s best to avoid these things if you can. 

If you have a headache, drink regular amounts of fluid – especially water – and don’t skip or delay meals (unless you're vomiting). Also, try not to smoke.

If you get a headache, try the following:

  • Take painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • Lie in a dark, quiet room (and if possible, sleep)
  • Alternate warm and cool compresses (for 20 minutes each) on your forehead, the base of your skull or your upper neck
  • Get someone to give you a gentle but firm massage to your neck, temples, scalp, back of head and shoulders
  • Have a warm, relaxing bath.

When to see your doctor

If you or a family member has a headache, see your doctor if it doesn’t go away after self care, or if it gets worse.

When it's urgent

If a friend or family member has any of the following symptoms, get them along to your doctor or after-hours medical centre quickly:

  • Drowsiness, confusion or weakness in their arms or legs
  • Difficulty waking up or bright lights hurt their eyes
  • A seizure (fit)
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of vision (they have trouble seeing)
  • Neck pain or stiffness.

Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.

In this section

  • A typical migraine causes a severe throbbing pain on one side of the head. The pain builds up during an attack and can last for several hours. Read more
  • Cluster headaches often occur at night and usually cause sudden pain on one side of your head – often around the eye. Read more
  • If you or a family member has a sinus headache, it means your sinuses (the mucous membranes of your nose) have become swollen or clogged. Learn more about causes, symptoms and treatment. Read more
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