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Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Headaches are one of the most common health complaints, but most are easily treated.

Most headaches aren't serious and can be treated with pharmacy remedies and lifestyle changes, such as getting more rest and drinking enough fluids.

What are headaches?

Primary headaches are those that aren't due to another underlying health problem. The main types are described below (you can click on the links for more information on the different types of headache).

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common, and what we think of as normal everyday headaches.

They feel like a dull ache with constant pressure around the front, top and sides of the head as if a rubber band has been stretched around it.

Stress is one cause, but there are lots of others, including drinking too much alcohol, not getting enough sleep, depression, skipping meals and becoming dehydrated.


Migraines are less common. If a headache is recurrent and disabling to the point of stopping you from carrying on with daily life, it's usually a migraine.

People describe migraines as an especially sharp and throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head.

Most people treat their migraines successfully with over-the-counter medication. If they're severe, however, you may need stronger migraine-specific medication that is only available on prescription from a doctor.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a third type of primary headache. These excruciatingly painful headaches cause an intense pain around one eye. They're rare and are called cluster headaches because they happen in clusters for a month or two at a time around the same time of year.

Pharmacy medications don't ease the symptoms of a cluster headache, but a doctor can prescribe specific treatments to ease the pain.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches have a separate cause, such as illness, and include headaches that come on after drinking too much alcohol or after a head injury or concussion.

Some headaches are a side effect of taking a particular medication, and sometimes people get headaches when they're unwell. You may get a headache when you've had a cold, sinusitis, flu or an allergic reaction, for example.

Frequent headaches can also be caused by taking too many painkillers. Read more about painkiller headaches.

Headaches in women are often caused by hormones, and many women notice a link with their periods. The Pill, the menopause and pregnancy are also potential triggers.

If you've been getting really bad headaches it's natural to wonder if there's something seriously wrong, like a brain tumour. This is extremely rare and the cause is almost always something else.

When to seek help

It’s very rare that headaches are a sign of something serious like a brain tumour. However, it’s best to see a doctor if:

  • you feel unwell between your headaches
  • your headaches aren’t relieved by pharmacy treatments
  • your headaches are so painful that they’re limiting your ability to get on with life or are causing you to miss work

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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