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Medicines for headaches

7-minute read

If you have a sudden and severe headache or if you have headache with other symptoms that concern you, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Key facts

  • Most headaches are not serious and can be managed at home.
  • Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, and can be treated with over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol and ibuprofen.
  • Migraines can be treated with prescription pain relieving medicine, anti-nausea medicines and special medicines for migraines called triptans.
  • Read the label carefully or ask your pharmacist to make sure over-the-counter medicines are right for you.
  • You should see your doctor if you have recurrent headaches, or you are concerned about other symptoms that accompany your headaches.

What types of headaches are there?

Most people have headaches occasionally. They can happen without any obvious cause, or they may be caused by a health problem.

The most common type of headache is a tension-type headache, which causes:

  • mild to moderate head pain that affects part of, or the whole of your head
  • steady pain that feels like a dull tightness or band
  • pain that lasts briefly, or for up to a few days

Other types of headaches are cluster headaches and migraines.

Learn more about other types of headaches, their management and treatment.

What types of medicine are used for headaches?

Tension headaches

The main medicines for tension headaches are simple pain relieving medicines. These include paracetamol, aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. You can buy these medicines at your local supermarket or pharmacy, but it’s best to check with your pharmacist if you need to take them more than occasionally.

Codeine and morphine are not generally recommended for tension headaches. If your doctor recommends a medicine containing codeine, you will need a prescription.

Frequent tension headaches

If you have frequent headaches, your doctor may suggest medicines 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.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache, affecting only about 1 in 1000 people.

Learn more about cluster headaches.

Cluster headaches do not usually respond to treatment with simple pain relieving medicines. A specialist neurologist can give you more advice and information about treating and preventing cluster headaches.


If you have migraines, there are medicines that can help.

These include:

  • pain relieving medicines
  • anti-nausea medicines
  • triptans — special migraine medicines that contract (tighten) blood vessels in your head

There are also medicines to prevent migraines including beta-blockers and amitriptyline.

Important information about headache medicine

Medicine safety

If you take pain relieving medicines, it is important that you understand how to use them safely. For instance, you may already be taking pain relieving medicines in your cough and cold remedies or medicines for arthritis, or other conditions. It’s important not to take more than the recommended daily amount as this can lead to serious side effects.

Read the label carefully, or check with your doctor or pharmacist, so you don’t accidentally take more than you should.

Medication overuse headache

Frequent (daily or almost daily) use of pain relieving medicines can lead to a condition known as ‘medication overuse headache’. In this condition, your headaches stop responding to the medicine, and can get worse. This is known as the ‘vicious cycle’ of headache medicines. The risk of developing this condition is higher if you use pain relievers that contain codeine or caffeine more than 10 days per month.

If you have regular headaches that no longer respond to your usual medicines, speak to your doctor. Your doctor may refer you to a specialist for treatment.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have a lot of headaches see your doctor. You should also see your doctor if you have a severe headache, or a headache accompanied by symptoms such as:

You should also see your doctor if you think you may have migraines. Your doctor can help you understand if you have a simple headache or a migraine. If your doctor diagnoses migraine, they will help find ways to reduce their frequency. Some people may also benefit from long-term medicines to prevent migraines.

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.

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

Looking for more medicine information?

healthdirect’s medicines section allows you to search for medicines by brand name or active ingredient. It provides useful information about medicines such as their use, whether they are available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and product recalls.

Resources and Support

  • If you are concerned about the effects of your medicine, talk to your doctor, pharmacist or other health practitioner, or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
  • You can find out more about your medicine by reading the Consumer Medicine Information (CMI)
  • Call 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) to speak with a pharmacist who can answer your questions about medicines.

NPS Medicinewise offers advice on:

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

Last reviewed: February 2023

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