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Acute Headache

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What is an acute headache?

An acute headache is pain or discomfort that may start suddenly and get worse quickly. You may have an acute headache only when you feel stress or eat certain foods. Other acute headache pain can happen every day, and sometimes several times a day.

What are the most common types of acute headache?

  • Tension headache is the most common type of headache. These headaches typically occur in the late afternoon and go away by evening. The pain is usually mild or moderate. You may have problems tolerating bright light or loud noise. The pain is usually across the forehead or in the back of the head, often only on one side. These headaches may occur every day.
  • Migraine headaches cause moderate or severe pain. The headache generally lasts from 1 to 3 days and tends to come back. Pain is usually on only one side, but it may change sides. Migraines often occur in the temple, the back of the head, or behind the eye. The pain may throb or be sharp and steady.
  • A migraine with aura means you see or feel something before a migraine. You may see a small spot surrounded by bright zigzag lines. Other signs or symptoms may follow the aura.
  • Cluster headache pain is usually only on one side. It often causes severe pain, and can last for 30 minutes to 2 hours. These headaches may occur 1 or 2 times each day, more often at night. The pain may wake you.

What causes acute headaches?

The cause of your headache may not be known. The following can trigger a headache:

  • Stress or tension, hours or even days after stressful events
  • Fatigue, a lack of sleep or changes in your usual sleep pattern, or a nap during the day
  • Menstruation, especially after pregnancy, or use of birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy
  • Food such as cured meats, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, dark chocolate, and MSG
  • Suddenly not having caffeine if you usually have larger amounts
  • A medical problem, such as an infection, tooth pain, neck or sinus pain, thyroid problems, or a tumor
  • A head injury

How is the type of acute headache diagnosed and treated?

Your healthcare provider will ask you to describe your pain and rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. Tell the provider how often you have headaches and how long they last. Also describe any other symptoms you have along with headaches, such as dizziness or blurred vision. You may need tests including a CT scan to make sure there is not a leak in any blood vessels.

  • Medicines may be given to manage or prevent headaches. The medicine will depend on the type of acute headache you have. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine. You may be able to take over-the-counter pain medicines as needed. Examples include NSAIDs and acetaminophen. Ask your healthcare provider which medicine is right for you. Ask how much to take and when to take it. Follow directions. These medicines can cause stomach bleeding or kidney or liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Biofeedback may be used to help you manage stress. Electrodes (wires) are placed on your body and attached to a monitor. You will learn how to change stress reactions. For example, you learn to slow your heart rate when you become upset.
  • Cognitive behavior therapy, or stress management, may be used with other therapies to prevent headaches.

What can I do to manage my symptoms?

  • Apply heat or ice on the headache area. Use a heat or ice pack. For an ice pack, you can also put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover the pack or bag with a towel before you apply it to your skin. Ice and heat both help decrease pain, and heat also helps decrease muscle spasms. Apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours. Apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes every hour. Apply heat or ice for as long and for as many days as directed. You may alternate heat and ice.
  • Relax your muscles. Lie down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Relax your muscles slowly. Start at your toes and work your way up your body.
  • Keep a record of your headaches. Write down when your headaches start and stop. Include your symptoms and what you were doing when the headache began. Record what you ate or drank for 24 hours before the headache started. Describe the pain and where it hurts. Keep track of what you did to treat your headache and if it worked.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

What can I do to prevent an acute headache?

  • Avoid anything that triggers an acute headache. Examples include exposure to chemicals, going to high altitude, or not getting enough sleep. Create a regular sleep routine. Go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time each day. Do not use electronic devices before bedtime. These may trigger a headache or prevent you from sleeping well.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can trigger an acute headache or make it worse. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Limit alcohol as directed. Alcohol can trigger an acute headache or make it worse. If you have cluster headaches, do not drink alcohol during an episode. For other types of headaches, ask your healthcare provider if it is safe for you to drink alcohol. Ask how much is safe for you to drink, and how often.
  • Exercise as directed. Exercise can reduce tension and help with headache pain. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Your healthcare provider can help you create an exercise plan.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, whole grains, and cooked beans. Your healthcare provider or dietitian can help you create meals plans if you need to avoid foods that trigger headaches.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe pain.
  • You have numbness or weakness on one side of your face or body.
  • You have a headache that occurs after a blow to the head, a fall, or other trauma.
  • You have a headache, are forgetful or confused, or have trouble speaking.
  • You have a headache, stiff neck, and a fever.

When should I call my doctor?

  • You have a constant headache and are vomiting.
  • You have a headache each day that does not get better, even after treatment.
  • You have changes in your headaches, or new symptoms that occur when you have a headache.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.