Everyone experiences a headache from time to time, but when is a headache cause for worry? There are many symptoms that are concerning when accompanied by a headache, including fever, vomiting, and changes in mental function. It is also important to be aware of headaches that appear abruptly or occur following a hit to the head. In this article, we will list all symptoms that can be concerning when combined with a headache, and when you should visit a doctor.
What Causes Headaches?
Headaches remain a bit of a mystery in that doctors aren’t quite sure what causes them. The brain tissue and skull do not contain nerves that register pain, so these parts of the head are not responsible.
That being said, the blood vessels of the head and neck, the tissues surrounding the brain, some major nerves, the scalp, sinuses, teeth, and neck joints and muscles can signal pain that may radiate to the head.
When Should You Be Worried About a Headache?
While there are many causes of headaches, there are some warning signs to watch for that signify a more serious headache.
An Unusually Severe Headache
This includes the development of a headache that is more severe than what you usually experience. It’s also concerning if your headache gets progressively worse, or develops abruptly and is severe enough to wake you up.
A Headache Following a Hit to the Head
If you experienced any type of trauma to the head and have developed a headache, it may be a sign of a concussion. Headaches due to concussions do not always happen immediately following the trauma, and may not develop until a few hours later.
Headaches Accompanied by Other Symptoms
A headache accompanied by other symptoms may be a sign that something more serious is going on. These symptoms can include:
- a stiff neck
- decreased alertness or memory
- night sweats
- neurological symptoms (slurred speech, visual disturbances, numbness, weakness, or seizures)
- painful red eye
- difficulty walking
- changes in mental function or personality
- worsening headache with coughing or movement
- pain and tenderness near the temples
- weakness on one side of the body
- drooping on one side of the face
- muscle or joint pain
- consistent pain in one area of the head
A Headache That Impedes Normal Daily Activities
It is worth seeing a doctor if your headache is severe enough to impede your normal activities, as this is not the result of a normal headache.
Patients With Cancer or Impaired Immune Systems
Those with cancer or impaired immune systems should inform a doctor right away if they develop a headache, as this may be a sign of something more serious.
A Headache Following an Animal Bite
Developing a headache after an animal bite may signify an infection.
Types of Headaches
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache that typically feels like a dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head. It’s also possible for the neck and shoulders to ache. Most tension headaches last from 20 minutes to two hours.
Migraines are more severe than tension headaches and are believed to occur due to changes in the brain’s blood flow and nerve cell activity. In most cases, a migraine is set off by a trigger, which can include changing weather, lack of sleep, emotional stress, bright lights, loud noises, missing a meal, and many others.
Migraine pain often stays on one side of the head, usually beginning around the eye and temple before spreading to the back of the head. It is often described as throbbing or pulsating. Untreated migraine attacks usually last from four to 24 hours.
Cluster headaches are uncommon but very severe. Those who suffer from this type of headache experience one to eight headaches a day during a one- to three-month period. The pain affects one side of the head and the eye on the painful side is often red and watery. Each attack usually starts abruptly and lasts for 30 to 60 minutes.
How Long is Too Long for a Headache?
If you’ve been experiencing the same headache for longer than a day, it is a good idea to visit a healthcare professional to determine the cause of the headache.
What Does It Mean When a Headache Doesn’t Go Away?
Migraines can last for days or even weeks at a time, and so a headache that does not go away may be a migraine. Panic disorder and anxiety can also trigger headaches that linger longer than a day.
While a headache can be a common condition for some individuals, it can also signify a serious condition. Some examples include:
- severe dehydration
- tooth or gum infection
- meningococcal disease
- high blood pressure
- brain tumor
- brain hemorrhage
- brain aneurysm
With these conditions, you may experience a headache that does not go away.
When to See a Doctor?
It is crucial to seek immediate medical care if you believe the headache is due to a medical emergency. Conditions that can cause a headache requiring urgent attention include a stroke, concussion, heatstroke, and preeclampsia.
Get Help From an Online Doctor
If you are not sure about the source of a headache, an online doctor is an excellent source to discuss what may be causing your headache and the next steps for treating it. At DrHouse, you can meet with an online doctor within 15 minutes, providing you with quick help concerning your headache.
Headaches may be a common ailment that everyone experiences from time to time, but there are some instances of concern regarding headaches. There are many symptoms to watch for with headaches, including fever, mental changes, and vomiting. When accompanied by a headache, these symptoms may signal a serious condition such as a concussion, stroke, heatstroke, or preeclampsia.
The three main types of headaches include tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches. In most cases, a headache should dissipate within a day, so any headache that lasts longer than a day, or is more severe than usual, should be checked by a doctor. Online doctors are an excellent resource to quickly meet with someone and determine the headache cause.
- Headache Pain: When to Worry, What to Do – Harvard Health Publishing – Harvard Health. (2010). https://www.health.harvard.edu/pain/headache-when-to-worry-what-to-do
- Signs That Let You Know When to Worry About a Headache. (2022). https://www.healthline.com/health/headache/when-to-worry-about-a-headache#treatment
- Headache for Days: What to Do When a Headache Won’t Go Away. (2022). https://www.healthline.com/health/headache-wont-go-away#possible-causes
DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.