Headaches can come out of nowhere and cause us pain — or so it seems. Turns out, there are a number of causes for headaches you might not know are triggers, but not all of them should have us running to the doctor in fear. Some are harmless and just require us getting a sip of water, while others could end up being life threatening. The knowing the difference between these headaches can let us rest with a peace of mind next time any throbbing begins.
"There are many reasons and causes of headaches," Dr. Larry Burchett tells me over email. "Some are not a big deal, like stress (tension) headaches from being stressed out. Some can be life threatening, like bleeding in your brain or a brain tumor. If you are worried at all that you have something more serious than a common headache, go see a doctor."
If you experience headaches, you're not alone. Approximately half of the adult population have had a headache at least once within the last year, according to the World Health Organization. It can difficult to pinpoint what is causing your headaches, as there are a number of culprits responsible.
To help get to the bottom of your pain, consider these 11 common causes of headaches and when you need to worry about them.
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A study from the Journal of Nutrition found that even mild dehydration can cause headaches. These types of headaches shouldn't alarm you; just load up on more water, and you should be good to go.
2. Sinus Infection
"An infection like sinus or the flu [can cause headaches,] but it's generally not a cause for worry, and it's relatively easy to fix," says Jennie Ann Freiman, MD over email. This usually involves pain over the forehead, around the nose and eyes, over the cheeks, or in the upper teeth, but it is resolved once the infection is cured.
3. Birth Control
"Migraines triggered by birth control pills, specifically if they are visual migraines (person seeing flashing lights, having an aura), is a definite risk for stroke," says Freiman over email. "In that case, any birth control containing estrogen should be stopped. Progesterone only pills are OK in this case." If you notice you start getting migraines after going on a new pill, talk to your gynecologist ASAP about switching to another option.
4. Physical Activity
"Sometimes physical activity like walking or climbing stairs makes [migraine headaches] worse," says Dr. Jennifer Caudle, family physician and Assistant Professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, over email. These migraines often feel like there is a “pulsing” in the head, but as painful as they are, they're no cause for worry unless you feel like you're experiencing the worst headache of your life.
5. Caffeine Withdrawal
Haven't had your cup of coffee this morning? That could be the reason for your headache, as they are a symptom of withdrawal. Although they're no cause for alarm, you can eliminate these headaches by slowly weaning yourself off of caffeine — or just wait it out for a few days.
6. Medication Overuse
"This headache is caused by overusing medications (often non-prescription) to ease headache pain," says Caudle. "This overuse actually then causes a rebound headache to occur as the medications wears off, which then necessitates further medication use. This cycle contributes to the medication-overuse headache." Consult with your doctor to discontinue or taper your medication if you suspect this could be the problem.
If you get a headache from exerting yourself, such as in sexual intercourse, this could indicate a mass or subarachnoid hemorrhage. Having sex increases your risk of an aneurysm rupture by 10.6 percent, according to research from the Journal of American Heart Association, so if you experience head pain after sexual activity, you should go see a doctor just to be safe.
8. Certain Foods
Certain foods can trigger unwanted headaches. Foods such as lunch meats, wine, chocolate, aged cheese, and gluten can cause headaches. They're not dangerous, but they're definitely uncomfortable, so try keeping a food journal and noting which meals end in a migraine. Then you can try cutting out ingredients that appear to be triggers and see if the headaches get better.
Stress can cause tension headaches, which feel like mild to moderate pressure or tightening on both sides of the head. A stress headache isn't cause for worry, but stress in itself poses its own risks. "A great underlying way to prevent a stress headache would be — you got it — to prevent or manage the stress itself," says Burchett.
10. Eye Strain
Bad vision can cause headaches as well as blurred or double vision, according to Mayo Clinic. In this case, you'll want to get your vision checked out so you're no longer squinting or struggling to see.
Cluster headaches are most common in people who smoke, according to Harvard Health. "They are severe headaches that is usually occur on only one side of the head," says Caudle. "The pain tends to be excruciating and is located around the eye, but it can occur in the temple or cheek/jaw area." Fresh oxygen can help with these frequent headaches, but consult with your doctor to help prevent these attacks.
When in doubt, it's best to get checked, but if a headache is minor or infrequent, you usually don't have to worry.
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