Headaches are common — nearly everyone experiences one every now and then. While headaches can be uncomfortable, painful, and even debilitating, you usually don’t have to worry about them. Most headaches are not caused by serious problems or health conditions.

However, sometimes headache pain is a sign that something is wrong. Read on to learn the signs and symptoms that will help you know when to worry about a headache.

If you experience regular, recurring headaches, you may have what’s known as chronic daily headache. This applies to people who experience headaches at least 15 days each month.

A variety of headache types can become chronic daily headaches, including:

  • cluster headaches
  • tension headaches
  • migraines

Many people who experience chronic daily headaches also deal with psychiatric issues like anxiety or depression. In that case, treating the underlying anxiety or depression can go a long way towards improving headaches.

A headache that wakes you up from sleep is known as a hypnic headache. It’s often also referred to as an alarm clock headache.

Hypnic headaches tend to happen at the same time several nights a week. This type of headache pain can be described as:

  • dull
  • stabbing
  • throbbing
  • burning
  • pulsating

Hypnic headaches tend to be more common in those over age 50 and affect more women than men. Overall, they’re a rare type of headache.

Throbbing pain is a common headache symptom that’s associated with many types of headaches, including:

  • tension headaches
  • migraines
  • sinus headaches
  • cluster headaches
  • caffeine-withdrawal headaches
  • hangover headaches

This pounding or pulsating pain is often localized to one area. It can make it difficult to go about your typical daily life and leave wanting to lay down and rest until the pain subsides.

Learning your personal headache triggers and taking steps to avoid them can help prevent this type of headache in the first place.

Also known as a new daily persistent headache, this type of headache develops rapidly and comes with unrelenting pain that lasts for at least 24 hours. It can even continue for days or even months at a time. The pain may worsen or even improve slightly from day to day, but it’s still there.

This type of headache is rare, but for those who experience it, the symptoms can be debilitating. A new daily persistent headache often doesn’t respond to traditional headache treatment options, and may not resolve on its own for several months.

A headache typically causes pain in your head, face, or neck area. Get urgent medical attention if you have severe, unusual pain or other signs and symptoms. Your headache may be a sign of an underlying illness or health condition.

Your headache pain may be serious if you have:

  • sudden, very intense headache pain (thunderclap headache)
  • severe or sharp headache pain for the first time
  • a stiff neck and fever
  • a fever higher than 102 to 104°F
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fainting
  • dizziness or loss of balance
  • pain that wakes you from sleep
  • pain that gets worse when you change position
  • persistent face tingling and auras
  • confusion or difficulty understanding speech
  • droopiness on one side of your face
  • weakness on one side of your body
  • slurred or garbled speech
  • difficulty walking
  • hearing problems
  • pain that begins after coughing, sneezing, or any type of exertion
  • constant pain in the same area of your head
  • seizures
  • unexplained weight loss
  • swelling on your face or head
  • a bump or injury on your head
  • an animal bite anywhere on your body

Normal headaches are usually caused by:

  • dehydration
  • muscle tension
  • stress
  • lack of sleep
  • nerve pain
  • fever
  • caffeine withdrawal
  • drinking alcohol
  • eating certain foods

They may also happen as a result of toothache, hormonal changes or pregnancy, or as a side effect of medication.

Migraine pain can come on without warning and can be severe and debilitating. If you have chronic migraine, talk to your doctor about treatment to help you manage this pain.

Some headaches can be a sign of a serious illness or health problem, such as:

Call 911 if you think you or someone else may be having headache pain because of a medical emergency. Serious, life-threatening illnesses that cause headaches and need urgent attention include:

Stroke

In the United States, someone has a stroke every 40 seconds. About 87% of strokes happen because blood flow to the brain is blocked.

A stroke is preventable and treatable. Prompt medical attention is important for successful treatment. Call 911 if you have stroke symptoms. Do not drive.

what to do if you suspect a stroke

Act F.A.S.T. if you or someone else may be having a stroke:

  • Face: Does one side of their face droop when you ask them to smile?
  • Arms: Can they raise both arms over their head?
  • Speech: Do they slur their speech or sound strange when they talk?
  • Time: If you see any signs of stroke, call 911 immediately. Treatment within 3 hours of having a stroke increases the chances of a better recovery.

Concussion

If you experience a trauma to the head, you may have a concussion or a mild brain injury. Get immediate medical help if you have symptoms of a concussion after a fall or a blow to the head. Signs of a concussion include:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea or vomiting
  • blurred vision or double vision
  • drowsiness
  • feeling sluggish
  • balance problems
  • slowed reaction time

Heatstroke

If you overheat in warm weather or during excess exercise, you may experience heatstroke. Look for these warning signs of heatstroke:

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • muscle cramps
  • dry skin (no sweating)
  • pale or red skin
  • difficulty walking
  • fast breathing
  • fast heart rate
  • fainting or seizures

If you suspect heatstroke, move into the shade or an air-conditioned space. Cool down by drinking cool water, putting on wet clothes, or getting into cool water.

Preeclampsia

Headaches in the third trimester of pregnancy can be a symptom of preeclampsia. This health complication causes high blood pressure. It can lead to liver and kidney damage, brain injury, and other serious problems. Preeclampsia usually begins after week 20 of pregnancy.

This blood pressure condition happens to up to 8 percent of pregnant women who may be otherwise healthy. It is a leading cause of death and illness in mothers and newborn babies.

symptoms of preeclampsia

Get urgent medical treatment if you are pregnant and have symptoms such as:

  • headache
  • stomach pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • nausea and vomiting
  • burning pain in your chest
  • blurred vision or flashing spots in vision
  • confusion or anxiety

Treatment for serious headache pain depends on the underlying cause. You may need to see a neurologist (a brain and nervous system specialist). Your doctor may recommend several tests and scans to help diagnose the cause, such as:

  • medical history and physical exam
  • eye exam
  • ear exam
  • blood test
  • spinal fluid test
  • CT scan
  • MRI scan

You may need intravenous fluids (through a needle) to treat conditions like severe dehydration and heatstroke.

Your doctor may prescribe daily medications to treat a health condition like high blood pressure. A serious infection may be treated with antibiotics or antiviral medication.

If you have serious headache pain due to a chronic condition like migraine, your doctor might recommend prescription drugs to help prevent or reduce migraine pain.

If you have high blood pressure, take medication as prescribed to help lower it. Follow a low-sodium diet to keep your blood pressure from spiking. Check your blood pressure regularly on a home monitor. This can help prevent serious headaches caused by high blood pressure.

You don’t have to worry about most headache pain. Headaches have many causes, and most of them are not serious. However, in some cases, headache pain can be a symptom of a serious health condition or illness.

If you’re concerned about headache pain, talk to your doctor. Describe any other symptoms you have along with headache pain. Seek immediate medical attention if your headache pain is different or more severe than you have felt before.