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How to Know When to See a Doctor for Your Headache

  • Category: LiveSmart
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Graphic of a girl sitting on her bed with a headache

Most headaches don't require medical treatment, but here's how to know if they do.

Headaches are a common occurrence and almost everyone will experience at least several in their lifetimes. Most headaches are nothing more than an annoyance, causing pain and discomfort for a short time. But how do you know when your headache symptoms may be a sign of something serious or when you should see a doctor?

Here are answers to common headache questions to help you decide if you can wait it out or if you should seek medical attention. In some cases, headaches can be a sign of a very serious condition that requires you to go to the hospital or call 911.

What kind of headache do I have?

Headaches are the most common type of pain people experience and usually go away pretty quickly. There are more than 150 types of headaches, with the most common being tension headaches. Other common causes of headaches are dehydration and clogged sinuses. Migraines typically last longer than basic headaches and cause other symptoms in addition to head pain. Most headaches do not require medical treatment, although there are times when you should see a doctor, go to a hospital or call 911 (see below for more info about when to do so).

What are common headache triggers?

Many people find that their headaches are triggered by things they eat, drink or do. Some of the most common headache triggers include drinking alcohol, eating processed meats, skipping meals, being dehydrated, smoking, not sleeping enough, being stressed, having blocked sinuses or vigorously coughing, sneezing, crying or laughing.

When should I see a doctor about my headaches?

Most headaches don't require you to see a doctor, but if you are having headaches that are more severe than usual or they are occurring more often than usual, it may be time to schedule a visit. You may also want to see a doctor if your headaches are keeping you from working, sleeping or participating in normal activities. If your headaches worsen or don't improve when you use over-the-counter pain relievers, it may also be time to schedule an appointment with your doctor.

When should I seek emergency medical care for a headache?

If you are experiencing a sudden, severe headache that feels like the worst headache of your life, it could be a sign of a stroke.

Call 911 if your headache is accompanied by:

  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of your body
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Trouble walking or difficulty with balance
  • Confusion

Severe headaches may also be a symptom of other serious conditions such as meningitis or encephalitis. In addition to the symptoms previously stated, go to a hospital emergency room if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Fainting
  • High fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Nausea or vomiting (that is not due to the flu or a hangover)

If you have any symptoms that indicate your headache is due to a serious or potentially life-threatening medical condition, it's important to get medical treatment as quickly as possible.

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Date Last Reviewed: April 18, 2024

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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