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Headache Warning Signs

Headache Warning Signs

Headaches are extremely common. Fortunately, they usually go away without causing further problems. Even many chronic headaches, such as migraines and cluster headaches, are not considered signs of more severe, underlying problems. They may need to be treated to improve your life, but they won’t put your life at risk.

That said, certain types of headaches should be considered potential warning signs of more serious health problems.

If you experience any of the following symptoms, make immediate arrangements to see a doctor, or go to the emergency room.

Thunderclap Headache

A thunderclap headache is an extremely severe headache that comes on rapidly. It develops in 60 seconds or less and causes intense pain. Thunderclap headaches can be caused by bleeding in the brain after an:

  • aneurysm
  • stroke
  • other injury

Headache After a Head Injury

Any head trauma that causes a headache requires prompt medical attention. A headache after any kind of impact to the head can indicate a concussion.

Concussion is a particular risk if the headache continues to worsen after the injury. Even a minor fall or bump to the head can result in potentially life-threatening bleeding in the brain.

Headache with a Fever or Stiff Neck

A headache combined with a fever and/or a stiff neck may indicate encephalitis or meningitis.

Encephalitis is an infection of the brain, while meningitis is an infection of the membrane that surrounds the brain. Both conditions can be fatal.

Headache that Wakes You Up

Being woken by head pain is a common symptom of cluster headaches. These are also known as "alarm clock headaches."

Cluster headaches are not life threatening. However, they can be debilitating.

Headache Accompanied by Nausea, Vomiting, or Sensitivity to Light and Sound

These are common symptoms of migraine headaches. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), migraines are one of the top 20 causes of disability worldwide. They are not life threatening, but they can severely impact your well-being.

New or Unusual Headaches

Besides the specific headache symptoms described above, any new or unusual headaches should be discussed with your doctor. Pay particular attention to headaches that:

  • first develop after age 50
  • suddenly change in frequency, location, or severity
  • get consistently worse over time
  • are accompanied by changes in personality
  • cause weakness
  • affect your vision or speech

Sudden weakness accompanied by speech and vision changes may be a sign that you are having a stroke. Get help as quickly as possible. 

Content licensed from:

Written by: the Healthline Editorial Team
Medically reviewed on: Jul 28, 2014: Kenneth R. Hirsch, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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