When to See a Doctor About a Headache?

Know which headaches can be treated at home and which require a doctor's care

Learn about different types of headaches, headache symptoms and when you should see a doctor with an infographic from Scripps Health in San Diego.

Headaches can be painful and disrupt your day. Fortunately, most improve on their own or with some easy, over-the-counter remedies. However, some headaches may be more serious.

There are several types of headache. Some are manageable with over-the-counter medications, while more severe headaches may require prescription medication along with lifestyle changes to manage symptoms.

  • Tension headaches
    Caused by tight muscles in the shoulders, neck, scalp or jaw, these are the most common type of headaches and can be caused by stress, anxiety, depression or holding the head in an awkward position.
  • Sinus headaches
    These headaches, caused by pressure and swelling in the sinus passages in the front of the head, tend to be worse in the morning immediately after waking, and when you bend forward.
  • Cluster headaches
    These sharp, very painful headaches tend to last less than an hour, occur at the same times every day, and occur up to several times per day for months at a time.
  • Migraine headaches
    Often accompanied by visual disturbances, sensitivity to light, nausea and even vomiting, migraines are severe headaches caused by abnormal brain activity that affects blood flow in the brain. They may be triggered by many things, including stress, food and drink, odors, lights, noises or changes in sleep patterns.
  • Rebound headaches
    If pain medication is used to treat a headache at home more than three days a week, withdrawal from that medication can cause another headache.
  • Other headaches
    Headaches can co-occur with colds, flu, fevers and premenstrual syndrome. In rare but serious cases, a sudden and severe headache can be a sign of a serious medical problem, like bleeding in the brain, very high blood pressure, a brain infection or tumor, carbon monoxide poisoning, or buildup of pressure/ fluid in the skull.

The headache infographic (PDF, 1.5 MB) below offers some guidelines of when you can treat your headache at home, when you should talk to your doctor and when to seek emergency care.