Understanding headache medication
Most people have headaches occasionally. They can happen without any obvious cause or they may be caused by a health problem.
Most headaches are not serious. You can treat them yourself. Most headache medication is available over the counter without a doctor’s prescription.
Types of headache medication
The main medications for headaches are pain-relief medicines. These include paracetamol, aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. You can also buy medications containing a combination of paracetamol and ibuprofen from a pharmacy. You will need a prescription from a doctor to buy a pain-relief medicine that contains codeine.
If you have frequent headaches, your doctor may suggest medication to prevent them. This might include a very low dose of an antidepressant (much lower than you would take to treat depression). There may be side effects including dry mouth, dizziness, blurred vision, drowsiness, constipation and weight gain.
If you have migraines, there are particular medicines or combination medicines that can help. These include pain relief medicines, anti-nausea medication and triptans (medication that contracts or tightens the blood vessels around your brain). There are also medications to prevent migraines including beta-blockers and amitriptyline.
Important information about headache medication
If you take pain-relief medicines, it is important that you understand how to use them safely. For instance, you may already be taking pain relief medicines in your cough and cold remedies or medicines for arthritis. It’s important not to take more than the recommended daily amount as this can lead to serious side effects.
Check with your doctor or pharmacist so you don’t accidentally take more than you should.
If you have a lot of headaches or have symptoms that worry you, see your doctor.
You should also see your doctor if you have migraines. It’s good to work out how to keep them away, if you can, and how to make them less severe.
If you are worried about taking medicines for your headache, ask your doctor or pharmacist about:
- the benefits of medicine for headache
- the risks of different types of medicine for headache
Your doctor or pharmacist will help you decide which medicines are suitable.
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Last reviewed: March 2020