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Headaches - danger signs

Description

A headache is pain or discomfort in the head, scalp, or neck.

Common types of headaches include tension headaches, migraine or cluster headaches, sinus headaches, and headaches that begin in your neck. You may have a mild headache with a cold, the flu, or other viral illnesses when you also have a low fever.

Most people with headaches feel better by making lifestyle changes, such as learning ways to relax. Taking medicines, such as for pain, may also help.

Emergency Causes of Headaches

Problems with blood vessels and bleeding in the brain can cause as a headache. These include:

  • Abnormal connection between the arteries and veins in the brain that usually forms before birth. This problem is called an arteriovenous malformation, or AVM.
  • Blood flow to part of the brain stops. This is called a stroke
  • Weakening of the wall of a blood vessel that can break open and bleed into the brain. This is known as a brain aneurysm.
  • Bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin tissue that covers the brain. This is called a subarachnoid hemorrhage

Other causes of headaches that should be checked by a doctor right away include:

When to Call the Doctor

If you cannot see your health care provider right away, go to the emergency room or call 911 when you have any of the following:

  • This is the first headache you have ever had in your life and it interferes with your daily activities.
  • You develop a headache right after activities such as weightlifting, aerobics, jogging, or sex.
  • Your headache comes on suddenly and is explosive or violent.
  • You headache as "the worst ever," even if you regularly get headaches.
  • You also have slurred speech, a change in vision, problems moving your arms or legs, loss of balance, confusion, or memory loss with your headache.
  • Your headache gets worse over 24 hours.
  • You also have fever, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting with your headache.
  • Your headache occurs with a head injury.
  • Your headache is severe and just in one eye, with redness in that eye.
  • You just started getting headaches, especially if your are older than 50.
  • You have headaches along with vision problems and pain while chewing, or weight loss.
  • You have a history of cancer and develop a new headache.

See your health care provider soon if:

  • Your headaches wake you up from sleep.
  • A headache lasts more than a few days.
  • Headaches are worse in the morning.
  • You have a history of headaches but they have changed in pattern or intensity .
  • You have headaches often and there is no known cause.

References

Digre KB. Headaches and other head pain. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 405.

Garza I, Swanson JW, Cheshire WP JR, et al. Headache and other craniofacial pain. In: Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, eds. Bradley’s Neurology in Clinical Practice. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 69.

Kwiatkowski T Friedman BW. Headache disorders. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al., eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2013:chap 103.


Review Date: 10/29/2013
Reviewed By: Joseph V. Campellone, M.D., Department of Neurology, Cooper University Hospital, Camden, NJ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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