Read below about severe headache, including causes, treatment options and remedies. Or get a personalized analysis of your severe headache from our A.I. health assistant. At Buoy, we build tools that help you know what’s wrong right now and how to get the right care.

A.I. Health Assistant

Take a quiz to find out why you’re having severe headache

Take a quiz

Severe Headache Symptoms

Most people get mild headaches from time to time. However, some conditions cause recurring headaches so severe that it is impossible to continue normal daily activities. In other cases, a new type of severe headache can arise suddenly. Depending on the cause, the headache can be located in different parts of the head, can last for a short or long amount of time, and may be throbbing, non-throbbing, intermittent, continuous, dull or sharp in quality.

Severe headaches can occur due to an identifiable cause such as an injury. They can also happen without an underlying medical problem. In this case headaches are thought to occur due to overexcitement of nerve endings in the brain.

Associated severe headache symptoms include:

Severe Headache Causes Overview

Headache syndromes:

  • In some cases, severe headaches have characteristic features that allow for the diagnosis of a specific chronic headache syndrome.

Medication overuse:

  • Unfortunately, overuse of pain medications to treat your headaches can actually make them worse over time. The headaches may increase in frequency until they occur every day.

Underlying medical conditions:

  • Many medical conditions can cause headaches that may be severe. For example, an eye condition called glaucoma can trigger an acute and severe headache. Extremely high blood pressure can also cause a headache.

Decreased pressure:

  • Loss of some of the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord can decrease pressure in the skull and lead to headaches. This is a common complication following a lumbar puncture or after epidural anesthesia used during certain operations or childbirth with vaginal deliveries.

Increased pressure:

Increased pressure within the skull due to a process within or surrounding the brain will commonly lead to a severe headache along with other symptoms, such as vomiting or confusion.

  • Structural causes: A structural abnormality in the brain, such as a tumor or a malformation that has been present since birth, can cause increased pressure.
  • Infection: An infection of the fluid surrounding the brain (meningitis) or of the brain itself (encephalitis) can cause severe headache symptoms.
  • Bleeding: Head trauma, rupture of an abnormally shaped blood vessel (subarachnoid hemorrhage due to ruptured brain aneurysm), or extremely high blood pressure can cause bleeding in the brain, resulting in increased pressure and a headache.

Arterial problems:

  • Injury: An injury to the carotid artery, one of the major arteries in the neck, can cause a severe headache on the side of the injury. This may also result in a stroke.
  • Inflammation: The artery passing over your temple can become inflamed, causing severe headache in that area.
  • Blockage: A clot or other type of blockage of an artery in the brain can cause a sudden and severe headache.

9 Potential Severe Headache Causes

Disclaimer: The article does not replace an evaluation by a physician. Information on this page is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes.

  1. 1.Uterine Fibroids

    Uterine fibroids are noncancerous tumors in the uterus. They are common in women of childbearing age.

    Treatment ranges from medication to surgical removal of the fibroid.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    vaginal bleeding, pelvis pain, abdominal cramps (stomach cramps), painful periods, irregular period
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  2. 2.Cluster Headache

    A cluster headache is a type of recurring headache that is moderate to severe in intensity. It is often one-sided head pain that may involve tearing of the eyes and a stuffy nose. Attacks can occur regularly for 1 week and up to 1 year. Each period of attacks (i.e. each cluster) is separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Other common headaches may also occur during these cluster-free periods.

    Each attack can last from 15 min to 3 hours and occurs from once every other day up to 8 times per day. Cluster periods usually resolve in a few weeks to months but can last up to a year.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    severe headache, nausea, throbbing headache, history of headaches, sensitivity to light
    Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache:
    severe headache
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  3. 3.Recurrent Cluster Headache

    A cluster headache is a type of recurring headache that is moderate to severe in intensity. It is often one-sided head pain that may involve tearing of the eyes and a stuffy nose. Attacks can occur regularly for 1 week and up to 1 year. Each period of attacks (i.e. each cluster) is separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Other common headaches may also occur during these cluster-free periods.

    Each attack can last from 15 min to 3 hours and occurs from once every other day up to 8 times per day. Cluster periods usually resolve in a few weeks to months but can last up to a year.

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, severe headache, throbbing headache, congestion, sensitivity to light
    Symptoms that always occur with recurrent cluster headache:
    severe headache
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  4. 4.Subarachnoid Hemorrhage

    Subarachnoid hemorrhage is bleeding in the area between the brain and the thin tissues that cover the brain. It's typically caused by a ruptured aneurysm (out-pouching of an artery's wall).

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, being severely ill, nausea or vomiting, severe headache, vision changes
    Symptoms that always occur with subarachnoid hemorrhage:
    new headache, being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service

    Severe Headache Checker

    Take a quiz to find out why you’re having severe headache.

    Take a quiz
  5. 5.Intracerebral Hemorrhage

    Intracerebral hemorrhage occurs when a diseased blood vessel within the brain bursts, allowing blood to leak inside the brain. (The name means within the cerebrum or brain).

    Serious life-threatening condition with a high chance of death. Consultation with a brain specialist (neurosurgeon) is needed to determine outlook.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    nausea, new headache, severe headache, vomiting, stiff neck
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  6. 6.Cerebral Venous Thrombosis

    Cavernous sinus thrombosis is a blood clot in an area at the base of the brain that contains a vein, which carries blood from the brain to the heart. This area is called the cavernous sinus.

    Indefinite

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, being severely ill
    Symptoms that always occur with cerebral venous thrombosis:
    being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Emergency medical service
  7. 7.Lupus

    Lupus is a disease in which the immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues by mistake. This can damage joints, skin, blood vessels and organs.

    Lupus is a chronic condition but symptoms can be managed.

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, nausea, anxiety, depressed mood, joint pain
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  8. 8.Eastern Equine Encephalitis

    Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV) is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. Encephalitis is the inflammation of the brain matter itself.

    2-10 days

    Rarity:
    Rare
    Top Symptoms:
    abdominal pain (stomach ache), nausea or vomiting, being severely ill, fever, diarrhea
    Symptoms that always occur with eastern equine encephalitis:
    being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  9. 9.Normal Occurrence of Headache

    Headaches are extremely common & a primary reason people miss work or school. In many cases, the cause for headache is unknown.

    1 day

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, mild headache, muscle tension, new headache, severe headache
    Symptoms that always occur with normal occurrence of headache:
    headache
    Symptoms that never occur with normal occurrence of headache:
    headache resulting from a head injury, severe headache, vomiting, pain, restricted movement, and clicking sounds from jaw, jaw pain, being severely ill, fever, drooping eyelid, wateriness in both eyes, unexplained limb pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment

Severe Headache Treatments and Relief

A severe headache may be a sign of a dangerous injury or medical condition and will often require urgent evaluation.

Seek emergency severe headache treatment if:

  • You have a sudden and extremely severe headache, followed by gradual improvement.
  • You have never had a headache as severe as the one you are experiencing now.
  • You have neck stiffness and/or fever.
  • You are experiencing neurological changes like unequal pupils, confusion, facial weakness especially on one side or changes in vision.
  • The headache started after a head trauma or intense exercise.

In some cases, even though emergency treatment isn't necessary, you may need medical evaluation and treatment.

Make an appointment with your medical provider if:

  • Your headaches are becoming more severe or more frequent.
  • Your headaches are accompanied by certain signs that are typical of headache syndromes, such as visual changes like spots or lines, nausea, inability to tolerate light and sound, and nose running or eye tearing on the same side as the headache.
  • You have tenderness over your temple.
  • Your headaches are severe enough to interfere with your daily life.
  • You recently had a lumbar puncture or epidural anesthesia.

Your medical provider may prescribe one of the following severe headache treatments, depending on the cause of your severe headache:

  • A daily medication to prevent future headaches and/or a medication to take to stop a headache once it has begun.
  • Referral to a neurosurgeon if your headaches are being caused by a structural abnormality.
  • Treatment for any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to the headache.
  • Using a headache calendar to track your headaches, identify triggers, and monitor your response to treatment.
  • Stopping a pain medication that may be contributing to the headache.

Some home treatments may help with severe headache symptoms.

  • Avoid strong smells, cigarettes, and caffeine.
  • Use good sleep hygiene, such as going to sleep at the same time every night and avoiding electronics at bedtime.
  • Avoiding stressful situations and using stress reduction techniques like meditation can help prevent headaches.

FAQs About Severe Headache

Here are some frequently asked questions about severe headache.

Can lack of sleep cause a severe headache?

Yes, it is possible for lack of sleep to cause a severe headache. Obstructive sleep apnea, a medical condition that causes decreased sleep quality, can cause headaches. In addition, lack of sleep can trigger headaches if you have a chronic headache syndrome such as migraines.

Why do I have a constant severe headache?

Unfortunately, a constant severe headache can develop when a headache syndrome progresses over time. This often occurs due to overuse of pain medications to treat the original headaches, and may improve if you stop taking the medications. A constant severe headache can also arise without a history of headache, as in the case of the headache syndrome called new daily persistent headache.

Why is my headache only on the right side of my head?

Many headache syndromes, such as migraines and cluster headaches, typically cause pain on only one side of the head. Inflammation of the temporal artery or injury to the carotid artery can cause a headache only on the side of the injury.

Why does my head pain increase when I cough?

For some people, coughing can trigger a headache or worsen a pre-existing headache. This is thought to occur because coughing briefly increases pressure within the skull. Similar processes like straining to go to the bathroom or exercise can similarly contribute to head pain. Headache associated with coughing can occur on its own with no underlying cause, or it can be due to an underlying medical condition such as a structural malformation of the brain.

Can my severe headache cause blurred vision?

One type of severe headache, a migraine, can cause blurred vision or other changes such as lines or spots in your visual field. However, a headache with blurry vision can be a sign of something more serious, like stroke. If the blurry vision is different from what you usually experience with headaches, or if it lasts for more than an hour, you should seek emergency care.

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Severe Headache

  • Q.Any fever today or during the last week?
  • Q.Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Q.Have you lost your appetite recently?
  • Q.Have you experienced any nausea?

If you've answered yes to one or more of these questions, try our severe headache symptom checker to find out more.

Take a quiz

Severe Headache Symptom Checker Statistics

  • People who have experienced severe headache have also experienced:

    • 11% Nausea
    • 10% Headache
    • 9% History of Migraine
  • People who have experienced severe headache had symptoms persist for:

    • 53% Less Than a Day
    • 28% Less Than a Week
    • 7% Over a Month
  • People who have experienced severe headache were most often matched with:

    • 9% Cluster Headache
  • Source: Aggregated and anonymized results from visits to the Buoy AI health assistant (check it out by clicking on “Take Quiz”).

A.I. Health Assistant

Take a quiz to find out why you’re having severe headache

Take a quiz