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Headaches

Headaches
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Headaches

6-minute read

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance or go to the hospital emergency department if you have a sudden, very severe headache and this is the first time this has happened. Or if your headache follows a head injury or it is accompanied by other symptoms that concern you.

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What are headaches?

Headache is a term used to describe pain in any part of your head. They are a common cause of pain and discomfort, and most people get headaches from time to time. Most headaches are not due to a serious problem and can easily be treated with pain relief medicine or lifestyle changes.

Headache is one of the symptoms of COVID-19. Even if your symptoms are mild, get tested for COVID-19 immediately — use the COVID-19 Symptom Checker if you're not sure what to do.

When should I call an ambulance?

Most headaches are not serious. But headaches can also be a sign of a serious illness, such as a stroke or meningitis.

Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance, or go to the hospital emergency department if you have a headache and:

  • it comes on suddenly, is very severe, or has made you lose consciousness
  • you have suffered a head injury
  • you have trouble seeing, walking or speaking
  • your arms or legs feel numb
  • you have nausea or vomiting (if not clearly related to a flu or hangover)
  • you have a high fever (above 38° C)
  • you are sensitive to light and have a new rash

What causes headaches?

There are 2 main types of headache:

  • primary — this type of headache could have one or more causes but does not develop due to an injury or illness
  • secondary — this type is caused by an underlying health condition

Primary headaches

Primary headaches are the most common. They include tension headaches, migraine and cluster headaches.

Primary headaches have several causes, including:

Sometimes there is no obvious cause.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches have a separate cause, such as an illness or injury. They include headaches caused by drinking too much alcohol, or by a head injury or concussion.

Secondary headaches in women can be caused by hormones, and some women notice a link between headaches and their periods. Hormonal changes due to taking the contraceptive pill, menopause and pregnancy can also trigger secondary headaches.

Some headaches occur as a side effect of medication, including pain relief medication. People sometimes get headaches when they’re unwell. For example, you may get a headache when you have a cold, sinusitis, flu, COVID -19 or an allergic reaction.

Many illnesses can cause headaches, but if you are getting headaches regularly or you are concerned, you should talk to your doctor.

Dehydration

Lack of fluids can cause dehydration and this is a common cause of secondary headaches. The body needs fluids to function correctly but fluids may be lost through:

  • illness, such as vomiting or diarrhoea
  • vigorous exercise and excessive sweating
  • alcohol
  • consuming a large amount of drinks that contain caffeine, such as coffee, tea or cola, since this will cause you to urinate frequently
  • working in hot weather or high-temperature environments

When should I see my doctor?

Most headaches are not serious, but headaches can also be a sign of a serious illness. See your doctor if your headaches:

  • are more frequent or more severe than usual
  • worsen or don't improve with recommended use of over-the-counter pain-relief medicine
  • prevent you from working, sleeping or participating in normal activities

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the headaches Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

How is the cause of a headache diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose the cause of your headaches by talking to you and examining you. They may do tests to exclude the more serious causes of headaches.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — Our Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use our Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How are headaches treated?

If you develop a headache, there are several things you can do that may reduce the discomfort:

  • Relax and rest in a quiet, well-ventilated room.
  • Keep the window open if you can to allow fresh air to circulate. Make sure the room isn’t too hot or too cold.
  • Use a cold damp cloth, such as a face cloth, or an ice pack on your head. You can make an ice pack from a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel.
  • Splashing your face with cold water can also help.
  • Continue your usual activities once your symptoms start to improve.

Make sure you avoid becoming dehydrated and don’t skip meals.

  • Drink plenty of water during the day — unless you have an existing medical condition that prevents you from doing so.
  • Make sure you drink more fluids after exercising or when the weather is hot.
  • Eat regularly to avoid your blood glucose levels dropping since this can cause a headache.

If you are in pain, get advice on which pain-relief medicines you can take. Your pharmacist may recommend over the medicines for the short-term treatment of a headache. Some medicines may not be suitable if you are pregnant or taking other medicines, or for children who develop headaches. Always follow the instructions on any medicines you take.

Massaging your neck, shoulders, jaw or scalp can help relieve the pressure of a tension headache.

Can headaches be prevented?

Try to work out your headache ‘triggers’ — that is, the things in your life that seem to regularly cause headaches.

Some triggers include hormonal changes in women, stress, poor diet, alcohol, too much or too little sleep, physical exertion, bright lights and your working environment.

A headache diary may help you to detect headache triggers.

Try to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating healthily and regularly, reducing your caffeine and alcohol intake, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, checking that you have good posture, and ensuring your environment is well lit and ventilated.

If you spend a lot of time sitting down — especially at work — try to get up and move around for a few minutes each hour. Sitting in the same position can put pressure on your neck muscles and cause headaches.

Resources and support

Migraine & Headache Australia has more tips on managing and preventing headaches.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2021


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