Typically, headaches are benign. Although painful, they usually are your body’s way of telling you that you need to slow down, rest your eyes, drink more water, eat, or take a nap. The overall majority of headaches are considered “primary headaches”, meaning that they have no underlying cause. The rest of the headaches are categorized as “secondary headaches,” meaning that the headache is a symptom of some larger underlying cause and may in fact be serious.
Secondary headaches are the type of headaches that people worry about. These headaches are only symptoms of an underlying condition, some of which could be dangerous or even life threatening.
Some secondary headaches are not life threatening, however. Sinus headaches, for example, are often indicators that you might have inflammation or even an infection in your sinuses, but it is pretty unlikely that you will suffer any very serious consequences.
Other secondary headaches, such as some types of migraines and very severe headaches might be an indicator for something more serious. So how do you know when to see a doctor, and when is it just a headache? Here are some guidelines to follow when determining when to seek medical care for a headache.
When to See a Doctor
- Head injury – Even a slight head injury can cause a concussion. If you are experiencing headaches after any sort of head or neck injury, you should seek medical attention right away. Not only could there be a concussion, but there are all sorts of underlying issues that could be caused by such an injury.
- Severity of pain – If you experience a headache that is so severe you would categorize it as excruciating or “the worst headache of your life”, you should seek help. This is especially true if you have either never had a headache or don’t get them very often, a severe headache like this could be a sign that something is wrong.
- Sudden onset – The sudden onset of a severe headache could be a symptom of something more than just a headache. You should seek medical attention right away.
- Neurological symptoms – Seek immediate medical attention if your headache occurs with neurological symptoms such as light-headedness or dizziness, numbness, tingling, loss of balance, vision changes, difficulty with speech, or confusion.
- Recurrent headaches – If you are experiencing recurrent headaches, especially if they are happening more frequently, you should see a doctor. Also, if you have recurrent headaches and notice a big change in the frequency, severity, or other usual factor, you should contact your doctor.
- Onset due to exertion – If your headaches tend to come on when you are exerting yourself, you should let your doctor know. This can be during any physical activity such as bending over, exercising, or even during sexual activity. This could be an indicator of a heart or blood pressure problem.
- Severe nausea and vomiting/fever and stiff neck – If your headache is accompanied by severe nausea and vomiting, you should probably seek medical attention. If you have severe nausea or vomiting along with a fever and stiff neck, you should absolutely seek medical care right away.
- You have other diagnosed illnesses or conditions – If you have other diagnosed illnesses and are taking medications, it’s important to always report any new issues to your physician.
Just because you have any of these signs or symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that your headache is a sign of something dangerous. However, it is better to be safe than sorry and if you experience any of these types of headaches you should seek medical care.