Head to the Doctor: How to Tell if Headaches are Serious

Did you know that there are over 300 different types and causes of headaches? Most commonly, they are caused by stress, lack of sleep, allergies, or dehydration. However, if you experience headaches that are different from your normal pattern, it’s important to head to the doctor to rule out any underlying serious conditions. Here are the most common kinds of headaches, and what they can mean if you experience them.

  1. Throbbing head.
    Approximately 18% of women and 6% of men experience migraines, which are intense throbbing pains that are often accompanied by light, nausea or sound sensitivity. If you experience migraine-like symptoms regularly, talk to your healthcare provider, because medicine and therapy can help.
  2. Slurred speech, numbness, or changes in vision.
    If you experience difficulty speaking or thinking, numbness or tingling, vision changes or your face drooping, go to the emergency room immediately. A life-threatening aneurysm (blood clot) could be the cause.
  3. Inability to concentrate or sudden memory loss.
    This could indicate you have a concussion. You should stay awake and see a healthcare professional as soon as possible.
  4. Stiff neck or fever.
    If in addition to a headache, you are suffering from a high fever and stiff neck, it could mean you have the bacterial infection called meningitis. If you experience these symptoms, see your healthcare provider immediately. There are meningitis vaccines available to prevent this infection, and it is especially important that college students receive this vaccination prior to their freshman year.
  5. Experiencing a headache that is the worst of your life.
    Head to the emergency room if you experience a headache that is significantly worse than what you typically experience, as it could indicate a serious health problem such as meningitis or an aneurysm.
  6. Headaches that wake you up from sleep.
    If you are suffering from these types of headaches, you should talk to your healthcare provider who may order a CT scan or MRI to determine the root cause.


 When to Visit Your Healthcare Provider

Headaches may indicate a serious health problem. Talk to your doctor if your headaches last for several hours or days or disrupt your everyday life and activities, and if you experience any of the following along with your headaches:

  • Convulsions
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Vision changes
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Pain around the eye or ear
  • Stiff neck
  • Confusion
  • Loss of alertness
  • Caused by injury
  • Increase in location, intensity, frequency and pattern

ACTION ITEMS: Know which headache symptoms require immediate medical attention. If your headaches are disrupting your everyday life, head to the doctor to get help and rule out a serious underlying health problem.

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