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.

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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.

A.I. Health Assistant Causes for Severe Headache

The list below shows results from the use of our A.I. Health Assistant by Buoy users who experienced severe headache. This list does not constitute medical advice.

  1. 1.New Migraine

    Migraines are headaches of moderate to severe intensity, which happen when blood vessels in the brain swell up. They are episodic and thus can recur often. Most migraine sufferers experience increased sensitivity to sounds and/or lights and become nauseous and vomit.

    Migraine symptoms may resolve within a day or two, but the condition can come and go for a year or more. If any particular episode is unusually severe or does not respond to your customary treatments, you may want to see a doctor urgently.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, fatigue, nausea, mild headache, headache that worsens when head moves
    Symptoms that always occur with new migraine:
    new headache
    Symptoms that never occur with new migraine:
    fever, diarrhea, productive cough, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  2. 2.Tension Headache (First Onset)

    Tension-type headaches are the most common type of headache. It is pain or discomfort in the head and/or neck. It's often associated with muscle tightness in these areas. This condition can occur as little as once a year (infrequent) but as often as more than 15 days per month (chronic). The cause of tension-type headaches is not clear.

    Tension headache symptoms usually resolve within a few hours but can last up to a week. However, if this particular episode is unusually severe or debilitating, you may want to see a doctor urgently.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    new headache, nausea or vomiting, moderate headache, loss of appetite, mild headache
    Symptoms that always occur with tension headache (first onset):
    new headache
    Symptoms that never occur with tension headache (first onset):
    photo and phonophobia, throbbing headache, headache resulting from a head injury
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  3. 3.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
  4. 4.Insomnia Disorder

    Insomnia is a very common sleep disorder that prevents one from falling asleep, staying asleep, or a combination of both.

    Condition is treatable with medication and behavior changes.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, mild headache, insomnia
    Symptoms that always occur with insomnia disorder:
    trouble sleeping
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  5. 5.Common Cold

    The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract.

    The common cold resolves within 7 to 10 days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, sore throat, congestion
    Symptoms that never occur with common cold:
    being severely ill, severe muscle aches, rash, severe headache, sinus pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment

    Severe Headache Checker

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  6. 6.Acute Bacterial Sinusitis

    Acute bacterial sinusitis occurs when the sinuses become infected and, in turn, inflamed, which causes pain and other symptoms. The sinuses are air-filled cavities in the face that are generally clean and empty but when they're sick collect excess mucus and can become infected. When your symptoms are persisting for 10 days or more or are getting worse over time, it's more likely that you'll have a bacterial infection as compared to a viral infection.

    7-15 days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    fatigue, headache, cough, sinusitis symptoms, muscle aches
    Symptoms that always occur with acute bacterial sinusitis:
    sinusitis symptoms
    Symptoms that never occur with acute bacterial sinusitis:
    clear runny nose, being severely ill
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor
  7. 7.Sinus Headache

    Sinus headaches are very common. When compared to a normal headache, this pain is generally around the eyes, sinuses, and upper cheeks.

    A few days

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    headache, headache that worsens when head moves, facial fullness or pressure, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, sinus pain
    Symptoms that always occur with sinus headache:
    headache
    Symptoms that never occur with sinus headache:
    fever, being severely ill, sore throat, muscle aches, cough, drooping eyelid, wateriness in both eyes, headache resulting from a head injury, severe headache, unexplained limb pain
    Urgency:
    Self-treatment
  8. 8.Cluster Headache (First Attack)

    It seems that your headache could represent a first attack of a cluster headache. A cluster headache is a type of 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 occur regularly for 1 week to 1 year. The attacks are separated by pain-free periods that last at least 1 month or longer. Cluster headaches may be confused with other common types of headaches such as migraines, sinus headache, and tension headache.

    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:
    new headache, severe headache, nausea, throbbing headache, congestion
    Symptoms that always occur with cluster headache (first attack):
    severe headache, new headache
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  9. 9.Thunderclap Headache

    A severe headache that's the worst of one's life could be the sign of a bleed in the brain. You should see a doctor immediately!

    MISSING

    Rarity:
    Uncommon
    Top Symptoms:
    thunderclap headache
    Urgency:
    Hospital emergency room
  10. 10.Concussion Not Needing Imaging

    A traumatic brain injury (TBI), or concussion, happens when a bump, blow, jolt, or other head injury causes damage to the brain. Every year, millions of people in the U.S. suffer brain injuries. More than half are bad enough that people must go to the hospital, and the worst injuries can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

    Most patients with mild brain injury recover within hours to days.

    Rarity:
    Common
    Top Symptoms:
    dizziness, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping
    Symptoms that always occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    head or face injury
    Symptoms that never occur with concussion not needing imaging:
    recent fall from 6 feet or higher, severe vomiting, posttraumatic amnesia over 30 minutes, slurred speech, fainting, moderate vomiting
    Urgency:
    Primary care doctor

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

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

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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:

    • 75% Cluster Headache
    • 12% New Migraine
    • 12% Tension Headache (First Onset)
  • 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

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