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4-minute read

What are headaches?

Headaches are a common cause of pain and discomfort, and most people will have headaches at some time in their lives. Most headaches are not due to any serious problem and can easily be treated with pain relief and lifestyle changes.

What causes headaches?

There are 2 main types of headache:

  • primary — which often "just happen" and are not caused by another injury or illness
  • secondary — which are caused by some underlying health condition

Primary headaches

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

Primary headaches can be caused by a number of things including:

Sometimes there is no obvious cause.

Secondary headaches

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

Headaches in women may be caused by hormones, and some women notice a link between headaches and their periods. Hormonal changes due to taking the Pill, menopause and pregnancy can also be triggers for headaches.

Some headaches can occur as a side effect of medication, such as painkillers. People sometimes get headaches when they’re unwell. For example, you may get a headache when you have a cold, sinusitis, flu or an allergic reaction.

There are a lot of illnesses that can cause headaches. If you are getting a lot of headaches or you are concerned, talk to your doctor.


Lack of fluids can cause dehydration and is a common cause of headaches. Fluids are needed for the body to function correctly and may be lost through:

  • illness such as vomiting or diarrhoea
  • vigorous exercise and excessive sweating
  • alcohol
  • having large amounts of drinks containing caffeine such as coffee, tea or cola, which cause you to urinate frequently
  • working in hot weather or high-temperature environments

When to see urgent medical attention

Most headaches are not serious. But headaches can be a sign of a serious illness such as a stroke or meningitis. Go to the hospital emergency department or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if:

  • the headache comes on suddenly, is very severe, or makes you lose consciousness
  • you have had a head injury
  • you have trouble seeing, walking or speaking
  • numbness in your arms or legs
  • nausea or vomiting (if not clearly related to a flu or hangover)
  • high fever (39 C to 40 C)

When should I see my doctor?

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 painkillers
  • keep you from working, sleeping or participating in normal activities

How are headaches diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose headaches by talking to you and examining you. Your doctor may do tests to exclude other causes of headache.

How are headaches treated?

If you have a headache there are things you can do to manage condition. Relax and rest in a quiet, well-ventilated room. Keep the window open if possible 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.

Drink plenty of water during the day, unless you have an existing medical condition which means this is not possible. To prevent dehydration, always make sure that you drink more fluids after exercising or when the weather is hot.

Eat regularly to avoid your blood glucose levels dropping, as this may cause a headache. Massaging your neck, shoulders, jaw or scalp can help relieve the pressure of a tension headache.

Continue your usual daily activities as soon as your headache symptoms begin to clear up.

If you are in pain, get advice on which pain medicines you can take. Your pharmacist may also recommend prescription medicines which may be used 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 with headaches. Always follow the instructions on any medicines you take.

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, 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 follow a healthy lifestyle by eating healthily and regularly, having less caffeine and alcohol, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, having good posture, and ensuring your environment is well lit and ventilated.Resources and support

Headache Australia has more tips on managing and preventing headache.

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

Last reviewed: November 2019

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