Headache Q&A

Tension in head and neck muscles and fever are common causes of headache. Too much alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine may also cause a headache. Most headaches do not last for more than a few hours. If your headache lasts for more than 24 hours, is not improved by over-the-counter painkillers, or recurs several times in a week, consult your doctor.

  • Have you hit your head within the past 24 hours?

    • Head injury

      Are any of the danger signs listed in the box (here) present, or have you vomited?

      • Danger signs present
        • Possible cause There may be damage to the tissues that surround the brain (see Head injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • Vomited after head injury
        • Possible cause There may be damage to the tissues that surround the brain (see Head injuries).

          Medical help EMERGENCY! Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance.

      • No danger signs or vomiting
        • Possible cause A mild headache is common following a minor head injury (see Head injuries).

          Self-help Take a painkiller (not aspirin). If your headache lasts for more than 2 hours or if you develop other symptoms, phone your doctor immediately.

    • No head injury

      Do you have a fever – a temperature of 38°C (100.4°F) or above?

      • Fever
        • Possible causes Many minor illnesses associated with fever are accompanied by a headache. However, a serious illness such as meningitis may also be the cause. Go to chart 4, Fever if you are 12 or over or chart 45, Fever in children for a child under 12.

      • No fever

        Have you experienced nausea and/or vomiting with your headache?

        • Yes

          How is your vision?

          • Blurred vision
            • Possible cause Acute glaucoma is a possibility, particularly if the pain is around your eye.

              Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

          • Disturbed in other ways
            • Possible causes Migraine is the most likely cause of your headache, particularly if any visual problems occurred before the headache started. However, the possibility of another disorder, such as a stroke, needs to be ruled out.

              Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately if this is your first attack. Although the condition is probably not dangerous, your doctor should confirm the diagnosis.

          • Unchanged
            • Possible causes Migraine is the most likely cause of your headache, particularly if any visual problems occurred before the headache started. However, the possibility of another disorder, such as a stroke, needs to be ruled out.

              Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately if this is your first attack. Although the condition is probably not dangerous, your doctor should confirm the diagnosis.

        • No

          Does either of the following apply?

          Sites of pain

          • The pain is felt chiefly in the areas shown
            • Possible cause Sinusitis is the likely cause of your headache.

              Self-help Try steam inhalation. Get medical advice if you feel no better in 2 days.

          • You have recently had a runny or stuffy nose
            • Possible cause Sinusitis is the likely cause of your headache.

              Self-help Try steam inhalation. Get medical advice if you feel no better in 2 days.

          • Neither

            Where is the pain?

            Sites of pain

            • Over one or both temples as shown
              • Possible cause Giant cell (temporal) arteritis is a possibility, particularly if you are over the age of 50 and have been feeling unwell.

                Medical help URGENT! Phone your doctor immediately!

            • Elsewhere

              Are you currently taking any medications, complementary remedies, or recreational drugs?

              • Yes
                • Possible cause Your symptoms may be a side effect of the medication, remedy, or recreational drug.

                  Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor. Continue to take prescribed medication unless advised to stop by your doctor but stop taking any other medications, complementary remedies, or recreational drugs.

              • No

                Have you had this type of headache before?

                • Yes
                  • Possible cause A recurrent headache for which there is no obvious cause, such as drinking too much alcohol, should always be investigated by your doctor.

                    Medical help Make an appointment to see your doctor.

                • No
                  • If you cannot identify a possible cause for your headache from this chart, make an appointment to see your doctor.

Dial 999/112 and ask for an ambulance if a headache is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • Flat, dark red spots that do not fade when pressed (see Checking a red rash).
  • Drowsiness or confusion.
  • Weakness in a limb.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Dislike of bright light.
  • Temporary unconsciousness.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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