Most of us have experienced a headache, with some more often than others. Ranging from nagging and irritating to downright debilitating, headaches can strike at any time and leave you feeling miserable and wiped out.
While serious, sudden onset or prolonged headaches should be checked out by your GP, for milder headaches there is a lot you can do to ease the pain with lifestyle changes, home remedies and over-the-counter medication. With this in mind, we look at the main causes for that pain in your head and explore how best to treat your specific headache.
What is a headache?
Headaches are a common condition that most people will experience throughout their lives, and the majority are not considered serious.
There are two types of general headache – primary or secondary. A primary headache has its cause within your head, while a secondary headache is triggered by something else your body is dealing with, such as flu or an allergy. Both primary and secondary headaches can be episodic (they occur only every so often) or chronic, where they happen regularly or last for several days at a time. Food, dehydration, the weather or environmental factors can also trigger a headache.
The most common forms of headache and how to treat them
When a general headache strikes, it is important to understand what type it is, so you can get the most effective pain relief.
Sinus or allergy
Painful headaches can also be triggered by a sinus infection or allergy and are typified by pain in the sinus area and the front of your head. Anyone who suffers from sinusitis or seasonal allergies – hay fever – are more susceptible to these types of secondary headaches, but this type can be aided by medication specific to allergy, such as fexofenadine, as opposed to seeking treatment for the headache itself. The best way to treat a sinus or allergy headache is to use medication to thin out the mucus that can build up and cause pressure in the sinuses. Over the counter nasal steroid sprays such as beclomethasone, budesonide, fluticasone and mometasone can help to relieve the headache caused by sinus pressure. Tackling your allergy with an antihistamine treatment can also reduce any associated headache.
A sinus headache can also be caused by a sinus infection, for which your GP can prescribe antibiotics to clear the infection and relieve the pain and other sinus symptoms.
One of the most common types of head pain, a tension headache is typically triggered by stress, whether that’s environmental, emotional or physical. Poor posture, squinting, dehydration and lack of exercise can also be a cause.
With a tension headache, you will most likely experience a dull, aching pain all over your head. You may also feel tenderness in your neck, shoulder muscles, forehead and scalp, as well as pain behind the eyes. The pain from a tension headache is not severe enough to prevent you from going about your day and can last several hours, even more.
As well as looking at the potential causes of your tension headache and making any necessary lifestyle changes, you can also use over the counter medication to relieve the pain. Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be really effective in relieving the pain associated with a tension headache.
While the exact cause of a migraine is not known, it’s thought this type of headache is a result of abnormal activity which temporarily affects nerve signals, blood vessels and chemicals in the brain. Considered a chronic condition, there can be many triggers for a migraine, including diet, environment, emotional and hormones. A migraine headache typically feels like an intense pulsing pain, usually one-sided and can last for hours, even several days, sometimes accompanied by nausea. Migraine sufferers can also be sensitive to light and sound during an attack, with some migraine headaches preceded by visual disturbances.
As well as recognising and avoiding your potential migraine triggers, relaxation techniques can help. Over the counter medication such as paracetamol, aspirin and ibuprofen can also relieve the symptoms if taken at the first sign of a migraine, or try migraine specific products such as Migraleve, which can also alleviate nausea.
Cluster headaches tend to happen around or behind one eye or one side of the face and are characterised by a piercing, even excruciating pain. Local swelling, redness and flushing can sometimes also occur on the affected side of the face. Cluster headaches normally happen in a series, with each headache lasting up to a couple of hours. It’s not unusual to experience one to four of these headaches in a day, with one resolving, only to be followed by another. While they can be seasonal, doctors don’t yet know the actual cause, although alcohol is thought to be one trigger. It is recommended you see your GP if you are suffering cluster headaches for the first time so any underlying cause can be ruled out.
Due to the acute nature of cluster headaches, over the counter medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen may not act quick enough to effectively tackle the pain. Prescription nasal sprays and oxygen therapy have, however, been proved successful in treating this condition, so a consultation with your GP is advised.
When to see a doctor
Most headaches are not serious and can be treated through a combination of over the counter medication and appropriate lifestyle changes. Episodic headaches should also clear within 48 hours with no lasting effect. But if you have a headache that increases in intensity, lasts longer than two days, comes on suddenly, or is accompanied by other symptoms such as slurred speech, changes in vision or problems with balance and confusion, it is important to seek prompt medical help for further investigation.