Cluster Headaches

Severe short-lived headaches that recur over a few days

  • Rare under the age of 30
  • More common in males
  • Smoking and drinking alcohol are risk factors
  • Genetics is not a significant factor

Cluster headaches are brief episodes of often excruciating pain experienced in one part of the head. They occur in a characteristic pattern, usually between one and four times a day, and there may be gaps of months or years between each group of headaches. However, a few people have persistent cluster headaches that occur at regular intervals with very few remission periods between attacks. Like migraines, cluster headaches are likely to be related to an increase in blood flow as a result of widening of the blood vessels in the brain. These headaches affect about 1 in 1,000 people in the UK and tend to be more common in men. Smoking and drinking alcohol increase the risk.

What are the symptoms?

Cluster headaches often develop early in the morning. The major symptoms, which appear suddenly and affect one side of the head or face, include:

  • Severe pain around one eye or temple.

  • Watering and redness of the eye.

  • Drooping of the eyelid.

  • Stuffiness in the nostril or, sometimes, a runny nose on one side.

Individual episodes of pain may last from a few minutes to about 3 hours. The average attack lasts 15–30 minutes. If you have a sudden, severe headache for the first time or if you have symptoms that are different from those of previous headaches, you should consult your doctor at once.

What might be done?

Treatment for cluster headache comprises treatments for acute attacks and treatments aimed at preventing the headaches. For acute attacks, oxygen inhaled through a mask may bring relief. Alternatively, a triptan drug (see Antimigraine drugs), administered by injection or nasal spray, may be effective.

To prevent attacks, your doctor may prescribe verapamil, a calcium channel blocker, or corticosteroids. These should be gradually reduced in dose, as advised by your doctor, as the headaches disappear. If attacks are particularly severe and debilitating, lithium (see Mood-stabilizing drugs) may be prescribed.

If you are prone to cluster headaches, you should not smoke or drink even small amounts of alcohol.

Cluster headaches may continue for the rest of your life, but you may have prolonged periods of remission.

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.

Back to top