What is a headache?

A headache is one of the most common day-to-day pains felt by people. Headaches come in different forms and vary in their intensity and symptoms. The most frequent types of headache are migraines, tension headaches, daily chronic headaches and cluster headaches. Headaches can also be categorised into primary headaches (cluster, migraine and tension headaches) and secondary headaches (symptomatic of another condition).

Headaches are not generally life-threatening, but if you experience any of the following, you should seek medical assistance:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Weakness in your limbs
  • Confusion

What are the symptoms of headaches?

The intensity of pain can vary from moderate to severe. Sometimes, the pain caused by a headache can become incapacitating for the patient. A headache may affect a specific area or affect the whole head.

The frequency of headache episodes is also variable, ranging from one to five a month. The duration of each episode does not normally exceed 24 hours.

What causes headaches?

Primary headaches result from problems in the pain-sensitive regions of your head and are not symptomatic of an underlying condition. Secondary headaches result from other conditions which have activated the pain-sensitive nerves in the head (e.g. sinusitis, tumour, concussion, dehydration, flu, infection).

There are also certain risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a headache forming and can include:

  • Heritage – most people who suffer from migraines have parents or siblings who also have them.
  • Age – migraine in childhood is less frequent and occurs equally in boys and girls. However, from puberty it is more frequent in women.
  • Stress
  • Food –chocolate, vanilla, nuts, citrus fruits, fermented cheeses and junk food additives, among others.
  • Alcohol and smoking tobacco
  • Hormonal changes – migraines worsen in women during ovulation and menstruation, as well as when taking oral contraceptives. During pregnancy it usually improves.
  • Climate changes
  • Lack or excess of sleep
  • Drugs

Can headaches be prevented?

Headaches cannot be prevented, but it is possible to reduce the likelihood of them developing by controlling risk factors. Some of the recommendations include:

  • Practising physical exercise regularly
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco
  • Avoid drugs and caffeine
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables

How are headaches treated?

Treatments for headaches vary according to the cause. If headaches are secondary, resulting from another condition, then they will usually resolve when the underlying problem is treated. Most headaches can be managed with over-the-counter painkillers, however, more debilitating headaches can be managed with preventative medication (e.g. beta blockers). Migraines will have their own treatment options.