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September 18, 2018

Common headache or something more serious?

Adult Health Headache

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Woman with a headache at work seb_ra/

Whether you routinely suffer from chronic migraines or you only experience the occasional tension headache, it can be difficult to pinpoint the direct cause of your discomfort. In most cases, a typical headache is not cause for concern, and can be the result of anything from a common cold or sinus infection to mild dehydration.

There are instances, however, when a seemingly harmless headache may be indicative of a more serious condition. Keeping tabs on your health and staying in tune with your body are the first steps toward understanding whether you should be reaching for an over-the-counter medication or for the phone to call your doctor. It is also important to note that no two headaches are created equal. The two main types — primary and secondary — affect your head and your health in different ways.

Primary headaches

These headaches are episodic, meaning they occur one to two times a month on average, and disappear without any further complications. Primary headaches are related to problems with, or overactivity of, the pain-sensitive structures in your head. Simply put, these headaches cause you to experience temporary pain and discomfort. Tension headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines fall into this category, and are not associated with an underlying issue of any kind.

Tension headaches are by far the most common type of headache, affecting up to 90 percent of adults during their lifetime. The exact cause is not known, but it is worth noting that tension headaches occur more commonly among women than men, especially with those experiencing high stress levels.

If you experience pain that is concentrated in one area, particularly on one side of the head versus the other, accompanied by symptoms like watery eyes and a runny nose, you are more than likely suffering from a cluster headache. Cluster headaches come on strong, often disappearing as suddenly as they arrived.

Migraines can last anywhere from two to 72 hours and are often preceded by visual disturbances like flashing lights or even a temporary loss of vision. Sufferers also experience symptoms like nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and sound. Although the pain can certainly become severe, migraines are not a sign of serious disease. Researchers have not identified the cause of these headaches. However, they have found that certain contributing factors, like bright lights, extreme weather, and hormonal changes, can trigger migraines in some people.

Secondary headaches

Unlike primary headaches, secondary headaches occur when a larger medical issue is at play and are also more prevalent in adults over the age of 50. For example, in many cases a neck injury or sinus infection is the root cause. In rarer instances, a secondary headache may be a sign of something more serious.

Understanding the subtle symptomatic differences can help you determine whether a trip to the doctor or urgent care is necessary. Signs that you are experiencing a secondary headache include head pain that:

  1. is different than other headaches you’ve experienced,
  2. occurs when chewing food, head pain that wakes you from sleep,
  3. or worsens when changing posture, coughing, straining, or overexerting yourself.

The American Migraine Foundation recommends consulting your doctor if you have concerns that your headache is part of another, potentially serious medical condition. Even if you suffer from episodic headaches, like recurring migraines, there are plenty of treatments to help ease the pain and get you back to feeling your best.

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information on this web site is for general information purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or health care provider on any matters relating to your health.

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