16 April 2018

Here's when a headache can be an emergency

Sometimes headaches can be a warning of a serious health issue.

Nearly everyone has a headache now and then. Most of the time, relief is just an over-the-counter pill away. Other times, learning ways to relax and relieve tension, or getting treatment for sinus infections can get rid of your headaches.

Sometimes, though, headaches can warn of a serious health issue. High blood pressure, a stroke, a brain tumour, carbon monoxide poisoning, infections and concussion could for example be linked to your headaches.

When to get professional help

That's why it's important to know when to take action. Contact your doctor or go to the emergency department and let the professionals figure it out.

Take this quiz to help you determine the kind of headache you're suffering from.

Medical experts say you should consider it a headache emergency if:

  • you would describe the headache as the worst one you've ever had;
  • your headache came on suddenly and feels explosive;
  • you have a high fever and nausea as well as a headache; or if
  • you have slurred speech, vision changes, dizziness, confusion or inability to move your arms or legs on one side of your body.

You also have reason for concern if:

  • your headache is the first severe one you've ever had and it's limiting your ability to function;
  • your headache started right after a head injury, after strenuous exercise or even after sex;
  • your headache is extreme, and one eye looks bloodshot;
  • you're older than 50 and suddenly start getting headaches for the first time in your life; or if
  • you have a nagging headache that worsens over 24 hours.

Some headache situations merit a visit to your doctor.

That's the case if headaches wake you up from sleep, or they're worse in the morning. Another reason for checking in with your doctor: If a headache lingers for days or has no apparent cause, like tension or dehydration.

Even if you get headaches regularly, talk to your doctor if the usual pattern of your headaches changes – especially their intensity.

Image credit: iStock


Ask the Expert

Headache expert

Dr Elliot Shevel is a South African migraine surgery pioneer and the founder and medical director of The Headache Clinic in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, South Africa. The Headache Clinic is a multidisciplinary practice dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of Primary Headaches and Migraines. Dr Shevel is also the main author of all scientific publications generated by his team. He recently won a high level science debate in which he was able to prove that the current migraine diagnosis and classification is not based on data. Tertiary Education - Dr Shevel holds both Dental and Medical degrees, and practises as a specialist Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon. Follow the Headache Clinic on Twitter@HeadacheClinic.

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