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California State University, Long Beach
Health Resource Center, Student Health Services
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What is a headache?

A headache is pain that can be felt in the head, face, and the upper neck. It is a common and frequently recurring disorder that can seriously disrupt a person's life. Headache pain may be generalized (all over) or localized (in one area) and can range from mild to severe pain. Postural changes, prolonged coughing, sneezing, or exposure to sunlight may contribute to headaches. Sometimes a headache may be a symptom of a serious underlying problem (such as stroke or brain tumor) and may call for prompt medical care. Although painful and annoying, the vast majority of headaches do not indicate a serious disorder. Tension and migraine headaches account for 90% of all headaches.

Here are some precursors to headaches:

benign headache common cold fever hangover from alcohol withdrawal head injury head or neck infection (ear infection, pharyngitis or sinusitis) influenza certain medications such as indomethacin, nitrates, and vasodilators premenstrual syndrome (PMS) stress a swollen tooth muscle pain withdrawal from street drugs (marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, etc.)

Two most common types of headaches:

Tension Headache is a common headache pattern that may or may not be associated with psychosocial stressors. Tension headaches are characterized by:

  • Pain usually felt as a tightness in the back of the head and neck usually mild and affects both sides of the head attacks begin at anytime of the day not accompanied with sensitivities to light, sound etc.

Vascular Headaches are broken down into two well-known headaches known as migraines and clusters.

    Migraine headaches, often preceded by fatigue, depression, and visual disturbance (light flash, loss of peripheral vision, etc.) are characterized by:

  • Pain that is on one side at a time (may involve the entire head)
  • Throbbing pain that usually develops in the morning and gradually worsen after an hour
  • Headaches that may occur every few days, weeks or months.


    Migraines can often last for hours, but rarely last longer than a day or two pain that may be aggravated by stress, alcohol, or certain foods such as chocolate, certain cheeses, and wine are frequently accompanied by nausea and vomiting. These can typically be relieved by adequate sleep.

  • Cluster headaches (histamine headaches), are headaches which are a variation of the migraine are characterized by:

  • Pain occurring when one is about to fall asleep pain that is often situated behind an eye (one-sided)
  • Patients with cluster headaches report that the pain occurs in the spring and autumn pain that peaks within 5-10 minutes and disappears in less than an hour
  • Occurring daily in a series of intervals that last anywhere from a few weeks to months pain triggered by alcohol accompanied with a flushed face and a nasal congestion

Symptoms of a headache that signal potentially serious problems may:

  • Involve a sudden, violent pain (could signal an aneurysm)
  • Worsen over time and include other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, speech changes
  • Cause personality changes (although rare, this could indicate that there could be a brain tumor or a mini stroke)
  • Include nausea, vomiting, fever, and stiff neck (could be an indication of meningitis)

And, in rare cases, may be caused from cerebral aneurysm, brain tumor, stroke, or meningitis.


Treatment of headaches usually includes taking aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen; whichever is better tolerated.

Drinking plenty of water can also help with headaches and headache prevention. Dehydration is a common cause of some headaches.

If headaches or migraines are recurring, keep a log of potential triggers. Attempt to eliminate the culprit foods, beverages or other causes of these headaches. Consult with a doctor to determine if prescription medications are necessary or to conduct diagnostic medical tests (e.g., MRI, CT scan, blood tests, etc.) to assess for other potential causes of these headaches.

References and Resources:


Mayo Clinic

National Headache Foundation