Headaches are a common complaint – the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly half of all adults will have experienced at least one headache within the past year.
Although they can be painful and debilitating at times, a person can treat most of them with simple pain relievers, and they will go away within hours. However, frequent attacks or certain types of headaches may indicate a more serious health condition.
The International Classification of Headache Disorders describes more than 150 different types of headache, which it divides into two main categories: primary and secondary.
A primary headache isn’t caused by another condition—it’s the condition itself. Examples include migraines and tension headaches. In contrast, secondary headaches have a separate underlying cause, such as a head injury or sudden caffeine ingestion.
This article discusses some of the most common types of headaches, along with their causes, treatment, prevention, and when to see a doctor.
Migraine headaches often involve a severe throbbing pain on one side of the head.
A person may experience increased sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Nausea and vomiting are also common.
About 25% of migraine sufferers experience flashes before the headache begins. These are visual and sensory disturbances that usually last 5-60 minutes and include:
Seeing zig-zagging lines, flashing lights, or spots
Partial loss of vision
Difficulty speaking or finding words
Be aware that symptoms of lightheadedness can also indicate a stroke or meningitis. Anyone experiencing them for the first time should seek immediate medical attention.
Triggers of migraine could include:
- stress and anxiety
- bright lights and loud noise
- sleep disruption
- skipping meals
- some foods and medications
- hormonal changes
2. Tension-Type Headache
Tension-type headaches affect most people at some point. They present as a dull, constant pain on both sides of the head. Other symptoms may include:
- Tenderness of the face, head, neck and shoulders
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- A feeling of pressure behind the eyes
These headaches can last from 30 minutes to several hours.
What causes tension headaches is not clear, but stress, anxiety and depression are common triggers. Other possible triggers include:
- Inadequate quality sleep
- Loud noise
- Eye pressure
- Stopped eating
- Lack of exercise
3. Cluster Headache
Cluster headaches are severe and recurring headaches. They are six times more likely to affect men than women. People describe a sharp burning or piercing pain behind or around one eye.
Other symptoms may include:
A stuffy or runny nose
Sensitivity to light and sound
Restlessness or agitation
Cluster headaches usually come on suddenly and without warning and last between 15 minutes and 3 hours. People can have up to eight attacks a day.
4. Exertional Headache
Headaches are caused by strenuous physical exercise, with the following triggers:
- Sexual intercourse
- Caused by coughing or sneezing
- Weight lifting
These headaches are usually very short-lived but can sometimes last up to 2 days. They present as throbbing pains throughout the head and are more common in people with a family history of migraines.
People experiencing cluster headaches for the first time should talk to a doctor, as it could be a sign of something more serious.
5. Hypnic Headache
Hypnic headache is a rare condition that usually starts when people are in their 50s, but it can start earlier. People also refer to them as “alarm clock” headaches, and they wake people up at night.
A hypnic headache consists of mild to moderate pain, usually on both sides of the head. This can last up to 3 hours, while other symptoms may include nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.
People may experience several attacks each week. The cause of hypnic headaches is not clear, and there are no known triggers.
6. Medication-Overuse Headache
Medication-overuse headache (MOH)—sometimes known as rebound headache—is the most common type of secondary headache. An MOH has frequent or daily headaches with symptoms similar to tension headaches or migraines.
These headaches initially respond to painkillers but then recur after some time.
A doctor can diagnose MOH if a person has a headache disorder and also takes pain relievers for at least 15 days a month.
Drugs that can cause MOH include:
- triptans, such as sumatriptan
- NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen
MOH can occur despite taking these medications. However, an MOH seems to develop mainly in people who take painkillers specifically to treat pain.
7. Sinus Headache
Sinus headaches occur with sinusitis – inflammation of the sinuses. This is usually the result of an infection or allergy.
Symptoms include a dull, throbbing pain around the eyes, cheeks, and forehead. The pain may be aggravated by movement or pressure and sometimes radiates to the teeth and jaw.
Other possible symptoms include:
- Facial pressure or pain
- Nasal discharge
- Pain in the ear
- A stuffy nose
- General feeling of being sick
- Decreased sense of smell
- Bad breath
Sinus headaches are rare. If there are no nasal symptoms, this type of headache is more likely to be a migraine attack.
8. Caffeine-Related Headache
High amounts of caffeine—more than 400 milligrams (mg), or about 4 cups of coffee per day—can sometimes cause headaches.
In people consuming more than 200 mg of caffeine per day for more than 2 weeks, withdrawal can result in migraine-like headaches. These usually develop 12-24 hours after a sudden stop. Their peak is 20-51 hours and can last for 2-9 days.
Other possible symptoms include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased mood or irritability
9. Head-Injury Headache
Sometimes, a person experiences a headache soon after or shortly after a head injury.
OTC pain relievers often resolve this. However, if symptoms are severe or worsen over time, the individual should seek immediate medical attention.
Always call an ambulance for a severe head injury or if the following symptoms appear after a head injury:
- memory loss
- get confused
- Vision or hearing problems
Post-traumatic headaches can develop months after the actual head injury, making them difficult to diagnose. They can sometimes be daily and last up to 12 months.
10. Menstrual Headache
Headaches are often caused by changes in hormone levels. Changes in estrogen levels can trigger migraines during menstruation.
Hormonal headaches often occur 2 days before or 3 days after a period or during ovulation. Symptoms are similar to migraines without a flash, but they may last longer.
Hormone-related headaches can also be the result of:
- Oral contraceptives
11. Hangover Headache
Excessive alcohol consumption can cause headaches the next day or even the day after. These migraine-like headaches usually occur on both sides of the head and can be worsened by movement.
Someone with a hangover headache may also experience nausea and sensitivity to light.
When to Speak With a Doctor
Headaches are a common problem, but most people can manage them with OTC pain relievers, such as acetaminophen.
However, anyone who experiences severe, persistent, frequent, or worsening headaches should see a doctor. A person with a headache should seek immediate medical attention if:
- Which starts suddenly and is extremely painful.
- After a significant blow to the head
- With confusion or disturbed vision, balance, or speech
- With numbness or weakness
- With fever, seizures, or fainting
- With a stiff neck or rash
- With persistent vomiting
Children who have frequent headaches should also talk to a doctor as soon as possible.