Symptom Watch: 8 Headache Red Flags and What They May Mean
Want to know when to get medical help for your headache? Lean the difference between "primary" and "secondary" headache and the danger signs you shouldn't ignore.
Everyone gets a headache now and then. Most of the time, you can take care of a headache on your own. Rest, quiet and pain relievers often take care of many tension, migraine or cluster headaches. Headaches can range from mild annoyances to more troubling ones that can seriously affect your daily life. But most headaches are not due to a serious underlying problem.
Sometimes, though, a headache can be the result of a critical medical condition. It's important to rule out these other causes. Although rare, a headache could be serious or even life-threatening. Here are some "red flags" or symptoms that mean your headache needs prompt medical attention.
- Headache following a head injury could mean bleeding in the brain. The brain is enclosed in the skull. A blow to the head can cause the brain to move slightly and tear a blood vessel that starts to bleed. There's no room for the blood to go. Brain tissue can get damaged as blood takes up more room. Don't ignore any headache that starts hours, days or even weeks after a head injury.
- A sudden headache that comes on like a thunderclap could be something serious, like a stroke. Call 9-1-1 for any sudden, very severe headache or one that is the worst you have ever had.
- A headache that no longer responds to treatment. If your headaches become more frequent, or are getting worse, this could be a warning sign. Talk to your doctor if your usual headache pattern changes for the worse or no longer responds to treatment
- A headache that starts during exercise may be serious, even if you've had them before. They can sometimes occur during a game of tennis, while rowing or weightlifting and may be caused by blood vessels dilating in the brain. But they can also have a much more serious cause. It's important to seek medical attention so the cause can be found.
- Headache along with fever or stiff neck or a rash could mean meningitis, an infection of the tissues that surround and protect the brain and spinal cord. Seek immediate medical care.
- Headache linked to a neurological problem may be a sign of stroke. Signs to watch out for include problems with vision, weakness, numbness, trouble speaking or walking, passing out or having a seizure. Call 9-1-1 if you have any of these symptoms. If you are having a stroke, brain cells are being deprived of oxygen and nutrients. Minutes mean "brain cells" when it comes to stroke, so prompt medical attention could prevent brain cells from dying.
- A new headache if you have a history of cancer or HIV (the virus that causes AIDS). If you have a history of cancer, have a new headache checked out right away to make sure the cancer has not spread to the brain. Or, if your immune system has been weakened, as in the case of HIV or some types of cancer or cancer treatments, your doctor will need to rule out a brain infection.
- New headache that begins after age 50. Both men and women are more likely to have a secondary headache and less likely to have a first migraine or cluster headache at this age.