Updated 10 February 2016

When to see a doctor for your headaches

A tension headache is seldom a cause for concern, but sometimes a headache may indicate a serious illness, in which case it is advisable to consult a doctor.

It is important to bear in mind that a headache may be a symptom of a more serious illness. 

See your doctor if: 

- You have more than the occasional headache

- Your headaches are severe or come on quickly

- Your headache is accompanied by any of the following (especially if you have not discussed these symptoms with your doctor before):

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Numbness
  • Persistent vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Slurred speech
  • Stiff neck
  • Unpredicted symptoms affecting your ears, nose, throat or eyes
  • Unrelenting diarrhoea
  • Vision loss
  • Weakness
  • You have a headache that persists, and continues to get worse or won’t stop
  • Your headaches interfere with your normal activities of daily life
  • You find yourself taking pain relievers more than two days a week
  • You take over-the-counter medications for headache relief, but the recommended dosage is not adequate
  • Coughing, sneezing, bending over, exercise or sexual activity cause headaches
  • You have headaches that continue and that began after a head injury or other trauma
  • The characteristics of your headaches change
  • The symptoms of your migraine attacks change

Read more: 

Treating headaches  

Causes of headaches  

Preventing headaches  

Reviewed by Dr Elliot Shevel, BDS, Dip MFOS, MB, BCh, Maxillo-facial and Oral Surgeon and Medical Director, The Headache Clinic, Johannesburg and Cape Town, February 2015.

Previously reviewed by Dr Andrew Rose-Innes, MD, Department of Neurology, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven


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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