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Mount Sinai Hospital: “Managing Your Migraines”
How to get rid of a headache
More women than men get headaches, and it’s thought hormones play a part. But there are lots of other triggers. Whether you want to fix an eyestrain headache, you’re looking for a hangover headache cure, or you’re dealing with a headache after sex or exercise, we’ve got the tips you need. Here’s how to get rid of a headache fast, and what you need to watch out for.
In this article
Know your headache type to ease pain
Headaches are a common health issue for both women and men. But research shows women get them more often.
According to figures from the US National Center for Health Statistics, about 1 in 5 women had a bad headache or migraine in a 3-month period in 2018, compared with about 1 in 10 men.
So how can you cure a headache? Here’s what you need to know:
- work out your headache type – effective headache remedies will depend on which type it is. Knowing this will help you treat it effectively, and sometimes even prevent it in the first place. It can also help you give your doctor information if you need to see them (see below). Read more about types of headache
- check if you need to see a doctor – “It’s important you know when to seek medical advice and what to watch out for,” says Dr Ann Nainan, family doctor and Healthily expert. “You should see a doctor if your headache is severe – especially if it’s the first time you’ve had it – or regularly affecting your daily activities.” Read more about headache red flags
- try self-care for your headache – “Most headaches will get better quickly, and you can use self-care techniques to manage them at home,” says Dr Ann. So read on for tips that are tailored to your headache type, to help you get relief…
How to treat tension headaches
“About 90% of headaches are thought to be tension-type headaches,” says Dr Ann. “And more women get these headaches than men.”
- they generally cause a dull pain, ache or tightness, which can feel like a band around your head
- it’s not understood exactly what causes them, but they’re thought to involve muscle tension in your head and neck, which can be the result of stress and anxiety
- they can also be triggered by things such as poor posture, too much caffeine and not getting enough sleep
Self-care for tension headaches
Self-care measures can help treat tension headaches, including:
- applying a heat pack to the back of your head or neck if you have muscular tension or neck pain
- drinking more fluids – dehydration can make tension headaches worse (read about dehydration headaches)
- taking simple painkillers, such as acetaminophen (paracetamol), aspirin or ibuprofen
Lifestyle tweaks can also help prevent tension headaches, Try to:
- do half an hour of exercise a day
- drink plenty of water and eat regular meals
- cut down on caffeine, if you think it’s a trigger for you
- sort out your sleep routine, if you’re not getting enough shuteye – check out our guide to better sleep
- take regular breaks during work, particularly if you sit and keep your head in one position for long periods, such as when working at a computer
- do activities that help you relax, such as yoga, meditation or massage
- find ways to relieve stress and anxiety – try this breathing exercise to manage stress and pain
Tension headaches – when to see your doctor
If tension headaches are getting in the way of your daily life, don’t put up with them.
It may be that you have a ‘chronic’ tension headache – usually defined as having a tension headache on at least 15 days in a month, for at least 3 months. If so, your doctor may be able to prescribe medicines to prevent them.
How to cure a hangover headache
A headache is a common symptom of a hangover. “How much hangover headaches affect you depends on various things, including how much alcohol and water you drink, and your tolerance to alcohol,” says Dr Ann.
- they usually feel like a throbbing pain on both sides of your head, which can get worse with physical activity
- they’re caused by drinking more alcohol than your body can break down, and dehydration is also involved
- they usually last around 24 to 72 hours
Self-care for hangover headaches
“There are 2 common ways to deal with hangover headaches,” says Dr Ann.
Ease the pain by:
- rehydrating – after you’ve been drinking, drink a pint of water before going to sleep, and stick to water and isotonic drinks the next day
- eating comforting food such as carbs and nutrient-rich broths – this can help with natural headache relief
- taking simple painkillers, if you need them – you can speak to a pharmacist for advice
Prevent a hangover headache by:
- not drinking to excess in the first place
- trying these tips on managing a hangover
Hangover headaches – when to see your doctor
If you’re getting hangovers regularly and think you’re drinking too much, speak to your doctor for advice on cutting down or quitting.
You should also get medical help if your hangover symptoms are very bad or you have signs of dehydration or alcohol poisoning, including:
- slow or irregular breathing
- lack of consciousness – call for emergency medical help if someone has passed out due to alcohol
How to treat a dehydration headache
Can dehydration cause headaches? Yes – when your body doesn’t get enough of the fluids it needs, this can lead to head pain.
Dehydration is often thought to trigger or worsen other types of headaches you might be prone to, such as tension headaches or migraines.
the pain can vary from mild to severe
it’s often described as a pounding or pulsating pain
Self-care for dehydration headache
“If you suspect your headaches are caused by dehydration, use these 2 approaches to tackle them,” says Dr Ann.
- Ease the pain by:
- drinking a glass of water
- taking simple painkillers
- using a cold compress or ice pack
- carrying water with you, so you can sip it regularly
- Prevent a headache from dehydration by:
- regularly drinking plenty of fluids. The general recommendation is 8 to 10 glasses a day, but some people may need more than this
- checking if you’re hydrated – a good way to tell is by the color of your pee. It should be pale yellow or clear; if it’s darker, you need to drink more fluids
Dehydration headache – when to see your doctor
Dehydration can be dangerous, so seek urgent medical advice if you have the following alongside your headache:
- confusion or weakness
- breathing problems
If your headache is severe and doesn’t go away, it could also be caused by something other than dehydration, so get it checked out.
How to treat a COVID headache
As well as cough, fever and loss of smell or taste (anosmia), common signs of COVID-19 include a long list of flu-like symptoms – including headache.
- according to the world’s largest study of COVID-19, headache is one of the most common symptoms
- another study describes a COVID headache as similar to migraine in terms of pain. It was also found to be more common in women, and in people who also had a fever
Self-care for a COVID headache
Most cases of COVID-19 are mild, especially if you’re fully vaccinated. Self-care measures to treat symptoms, including COVID headache relief, include:
- getting lots of rest
- drinking lots of fluids to stay hydrated
- opening a window to cool your room
- taking simple painkillers for headache, fever or aches and pains
- Most mild cases of COVID-19 get better on their own within a few weeks, although this can take longer in some cases, or if you have long COVID.
COVID headache – when to see your doctor
The majority of people have mild symptoms and can usually manage COVID-19 at home. But the virus is unpredictable and can sometimes become more serious, so it’s important to keep an eye on your symptoms.
Always seek medical advice if you aren’t sure, your symptoms persist, or you’re in a high-risk group. You should call an ambulance or go to your local emergency department if you feel so breathless you cannot talk, feel dizzy or confused.
Treatments for migraines
Migraine headaches can have a really big effect on your life, causing severe pain and sickness that’s bad enough to need time off work. And according to the Office on Women’s Health, about 75% of people who get migraines are women.
Read more about migraines, including symptoms, types and triggers.
Self-care for migraines
Simple painkillers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be effective for migraines. But long-term painkiller use can make it harder to treat headaches over time (read more about painkiller headaches).
And prevention is often better than cure. Knowing your migraine triggers and avoiding them can be an effective way to stop them happening, or reduce their severity.
To work out your triggers, keep a migraine diary and record:
- the date of the attack
- the time of day it began
- any warning signs
- your symptoms
- what medication you took
- when the attack ended
Preventative medication can also be helpful at stopping an attack happening in the first place. These have to be prescribed by your doctor.
Read more about how to prevent migraines and treatments for migraines.
Migraines – when to see your doctor
See your doctor if you have:
- severe migraines
- symptoms that are affecting your mood and weekly routine
- frequent migraines – on more than 5 days a month. Even if they can be controlled with medication, you may benefit from preventative treatment
Certain symptoms may be a sign of a more serious condition, such meningitis or a stroke. Get emergency medical help if you have:
- a sudden, very severe headache, with pain unlike anything you’ve had before
- a headache with a fever, stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision or a rash
- weakness or paralysis in 1 or both arms and/or 1 side of the face
- slurred or garbled speech
How to treat hormonal headaches
According to the Office on Women’s Health, more than half of migraines in women are linked to the menstrual cycle – happening just before, during, or after their periods.
Sometimes known as ‘menstrual migraines’, hormone-related headaches can also be caused by oral contraception such as the combined pill, pregnancy, or the menopause.
Find out more about symptoms, causes and treatments for hormone headaches.
Self-care for hormonal headaches
If keeping a headache diary shows that your headaches happen around the time of your period, try these steps to help prevent them:
- eat small, frequent snacks to balance your blood sugar levels. Missing meals or going too long without food can trigger attacks
- keep to a regular sleep pattern – avoid too much or too little sleep
- avoid stress as much as possible
Hormonal headaches – when to see your doctor
If self-care tips don’t help and regular hormonal headaches are affecting your daily life, talk to your doctor.
They may be able to prescribe migraine medication to help prevent monthly attacks, as well as changing your method of contraception, if this is playing a part in your headaches.
How to treat sinus headache
Sinus headaches are often confused with tension headaches or migraines, but they’re much less common.
- they feel like a dull, throbbing pain or pressure in your face, often under your eyes or sometimes in your upper teeth
- they happen if small air spaces behind your nose, eyes and cheeks (your sinuses) get infected
Self-care for sinus headache
If you think you have a sinus headache, it’s a good idea to see your doctor before trying to treat it yourself. If it is a sinus headache, you may need medication to treat the infection.
But these self-care tips can help relieve symptoms:
- nasal douching with a saline nasal spray – available from your pharmacist
- holding a cold flannel to your affected sinuses for a few minutes, several times a day
- using a humidifier to moisten the air in your home
Sinus headache – when to see your doctor
See your doctor if you think you might have a sinus headache – that way you can start treatment as soon as possible, if you need it.
Or if it isn’t a sinus infection, your doctor will be able to diagnose your symptoms and recommend suitable treatment.
How to treat headache after exercise
Exercise can sometimes be a trigger for headaches, which can sometimes be referred to as ‘jogger’s headache’ or ‘weightlifter’s headache’.
It’s thought that over-exertion is responsible for this type of headache, which can come on suddenly after you’ve been active – including after sex – but the exact cause is unknown.
Self-care for headache after exercise
The easiest way to avoid this kind of headache is to change the workout routine that triggers them – either by stopping or modifying it. You can also take painkillers to manage the pain.
Some studies suggest certain supplements may help, including coenzyme Q10, feverfew, magnesium, riboflavin and Boswellia (a natural anti-inflammatory). But evidence for these is limited, and more research is needed. It’s always best to check with your pharmacist or doctor before trying a new supplement.
Headache after exercise – when to see your doctor
Most exercise-triggered headaches fade within hours. But see a doctor if you get headaches when you exercise, so they can check what might be causing it.
How to get rid of less common headaches
Although painkillers can be an effective way to manage headache pain, they can actually trigger more headaches if you use them too often. Painkiller or ‘medication overuse’ headaches usually happen if you use painkillers for more than 15 days a month.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), painkiller headaches can affect up to 5% of some populations, with more women than men affected.
Treatment involves stopping taking the painkillers, but you may need to do this with the help of your doctor. Find more about treating painkiller headaches.
These rare headaches are extremely painful attacks that affect 1 side of the head, often around the eye. They’re much more common in men than women.
They can be treated with medication or oxygen therapy. In some cases, preventative treatment may also be needed.
Read more about the symptoms and treatment of cluster headaches.
Also called giant cell arteritis, this is a condition when the arteries at the sides of your head (temples) become inflamed – which can cause frequent, severe headaches.
It needs urgent treatment, so if you suddenly develop a severe headache along with pain at the temples, jaw pain or other symptoms, get medical advice right away.
Not particularly common, these sudden, striking headaches can be a sign of bleeding in the brain. You will often get additional symptoms such as vomiting, being sick or feeling faint, and need to seek immediate medical attention.
How your pharmacy can help with headaches
It’s always worth asking your nearest pharmacy for help treating headaches – they can recommend suitable pain-relief drugs, as well as supplements that might help. They’re also generally open at times when your doctor may not be available.
When headaches are more serious
Remember, headaches are very common – they’re rarely a sign of anything serious.
But certain symptoms mean you should see a doctor to check for an underlying cause, or get urgent medical help – so check these headache red flags.
Tips to Get Rid of a Headache
Headaches happen. The good news is there are several simple things you can do to ease the pain without a trip to the doctor. Try these tips and get to feeling better fast.
Try a Cold Pack
If you have a migraine, place a cold pack on your forehead. Ice cubes wrapped in a towel, a bag of frozen vegetables, or even a cold shower may ease the pain. Keep the compress on your head for 15 minutes, and then take a break for 15 minutes.
Use a Heating Pad or Hot Compress
If you have a tension headache, place a heating pad on your neck or the back of your head. If you have a sinus headache, hold a warm cloth to the area that hurts. A warm shower might also do the trick.
Ease Pressure on Your Scalp or Head
If your ponytail is too tight, it could cause a headache. These “external compression headaches” can also be brought on by wearing a hat, headband, or even swimming goggles that are too tight.
Dim the Lights
Bright or flickering light, even from your computer screen, can cause migraine headaches. If you’re prone to them, cover your windows with blackout curtains during the day. Wear sunglasses outdoors. You might also add anti-glare screens to your computer and use daylight-spectrum fluorescent bulbs in your light fixtures.
Try Not to Chew
Chewing gum can hurt not just your jaw but your head. The same is true for chewing your fingernails, lips, the inside of your cheeks, or handy objects like pens. Avoid crunchy and sticky foods, and make sure you take small bites. If you grind your teeth at night, ask your dentist about a mouth guard. This may curb your early-morning headaches.
Drink plenty of liquids. Dehydration can cause a headache or make one worse.
Get Some Caffeine
Have some tea, coffee, or something with a little caffeine in it. If you get it early enough after the pain starts, it could ease your headache pain. It can also help over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen work better. Just don’t drink too much because caffeine withdrawal can cause its own type of headache.
Whether it’s stretches, yoga, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation, learning how to chill out when you’re in the middle of a headache can help with the pain. You might talk to your doctor about physical therapy if you have muscle spasms in your neck.
You can do it yourself. A few minutes massaging your forehead, neck, and temples can help ease a tension headache, which may result from stress. Or apply gentle, rotating pressure to the painful area.
Take Some Ginger
A small recent study found that taking ginger, in addition to regular over-the-counter pain meds, eased pain for people in the ER with migraines. Another found that it worked almost as well as prescription migraine meds. You can try a supplement or brew some tea.
Use Meds in Moderation
Pharmacy shelves are stocked with pain relievers for all kinds of headaches. To get the most benefit with the least risk, follow the directions on the label and these guidelines:
- Choose liquid over pills. Your body absorbs it faster.
- Avoid ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) if you have heart failure or kidney failure.
- Do not give aspirin to a child under age 18.
- Take painkillers as soon as you start to hurt. You’ll probably beat it with a smaller dose than if you wait.
- If you get sick to your stomach when you get a headache, ask your doctor what might help.
- Ask your doctor what to take to avoid a rebound headache, which is pain that sets in after a few days of pain relievers.
And be sure to talk to your doctor about what headache symptoms you should not treat at home.
When to Call Your Doctor
Get medical care right away for:
- A headache that follows a head injury
- A headache along with dizziness, speech problems, confusion, or other neurological symptoms
- A severe headache that comes on suddenly
- A headache that gets worse even after you take pain medications
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center: “Have a Headache at Work? 13 Quick Fixes.”
National Headache Foundation: “Hot and Cold Packs/Showers,” “Bruxism.”
National Health Service (UK): “Sinus headache,” “10 Headache Triggers.”
Blau, JN. Headache, published online May 2004.
The International Headache Classification ICHD-2: “External Compression Headache.”
Mount Sinai Hospital: “Managing Your Migraines”
American Headache Society: “Dental Appliances and Headache,” “Types of Headaches,” “Sinus Headache or Migraine?” “Acute Therapy: Why Not Over-The-Counter or Other Nonspecific Options?” “Ten Things That You and Your Patients with Migraine Should Know.”
The Migraine Trust: “Medication for Migraine.”
Lawrence C. Newman, MD, President, American Headache Society and Director, Headache Institute, Mount Sinai Roosevelt Hospital, New York City.
American Academy of Neurology: “Migraine Headache.”
American Migraine Foundation: “Headache Hygiene – What is it?”
American College of Physicians: “Managing Migraine.”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Chronic Daily Headache.”
Mayo Clinic: “Acupuncture,” “Migraine,” “Migraines: Simple steps to head off the pain,” “Rebound headaches,” “Tension headache.”
Cleveland Clinic: “Self-Care Treatments for Headaches: Procedure Details,” “Headache Treatment Overview,” “Self-Care Treatment for Headaches,” “When to Call the Doctor About Your Headache Symptoms,” “Headache Treatment Overview.”
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Acupuncture: In Depth,” “Butterbur,” “Feverfew.”
Cephalalgia: “Double-blind placebo-controlled randomized clinical trial of ginger (Zingiber officinale Rosc.) addition in migraine acute treatment.”
Phytotherapy Research: “Comparison between the efficacy of ginger and sumatriptan in the ablative treatment of the common migraine.”
FamilyDoctor.org: “Hydration: Why it is so important.”
HealthyChildren: “Choosing Over-the-Counter Medicines for Your Child.”