Symptoms Never to Ignore With a Headache

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  • Headaches are one of the most common forms of pain, and they can affect anyone at any age, even children. Sometimes the condition is a primary headache, meaning the problem is the headache itself, rather than the headache being a symptom of another medical problem. Headache as a symptom is called a secondary headache, and the underlying medical condition can sometimes be serious. Dangerous headache symptoms should be evaluated by a doctor right away. Learn more about which headache symptoms you should never ignore.

  • 1
    Severe headache that comes on suddenly
    man-with-hand-on-head

    A sudden, severe headache is sometimes called a thunderclap headache because it is so unexpected and the intensity peaks within 60 seconds of onset. This is a dangerous headache symptom that should not be ignored, even if the headache starts to feel better a short time later. A thunderclap headache may be the signal that there is bleeding in the brain—or brain hemorrhage—which can be the result of an aneurysm, stroke or head injury. This kind of severe, sudden headache is an emergency and should be evaluated immediately. Call 911 unless someone can drive you to the emergency room.

  • 2
    Stiff neck and sudden high fever
    woman with neck pain

    A headache that accompanies a stiff neck, high fever, and neurological symptoms, such as seizures, may indicate a serious condition called meningitis. This condition, caused by swelling of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, can have several causes, including viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic infection. Never ignore a headache with a stiff neck, because meningitis needs emergency medical care. Bacterial meningitis can be a life-threatening condition and needs antibiotic treatment immediately.

  • 3
    Tenderness in the temple area
    Businessman with headache sitting at desk in office

    If you’re older than 50 and experience a headache along with tenderness in your temples or scalp or jaw pain while chewing, vascular inflammation may be the culprit, and you should be evaluated right away for a condition called giant cell arteritis. You may feel pain on only one side of your head, or you may experience vision changes and pain in your eyes. Giant cell arteritis can lead to permanent blindness if it progresses untreated. Sometimes giant cell arteritis can lead to stroke or aneurysm.

  • 4
    Neurological symptoms
    serious senior african american man sitting on couch

    Neurological symptoms, such as weakness on one side of the body, difficulty speaking, mental confusion or seizures, along with a headache could mean you’re having a stroke. If your speech is slurred and you’re having difficulty understanding what other people are saying, you need immediate medical care—time is of the essence to prevent serious stroke complications, so call 911 for the fastest response. Other neurological symptoms of stroke that can accompany a headache include vision changes, numbness, one-sided facial paralysis, and sudden drowsiness.

  • 5
    Eye redness and seeing halos around lights
    Unseen woman holding ice or heat pack on her eyes

    Eye pressure, blurry vision, eye redness, and seeing colored halos around lights along with headache may be a sign of glaucoma. While open-angle glaucoma typically causes no symptoms in the early stages, closed-angle glaucoma has several signs. Left untreated, glaucoma can cause permanent blindness. Sometimes these symptoms can build over time, and other times there’s a sudden increase in eye pressure, severe eye pain, and headache. If you notice these symptoms along with nausea and vomiting, do not ignore them hoping they will improve—you need emergency care. Call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency room. When these symptoms appear, you could lose your vision completely within only hours without treatment.

  • 6
    New or unusual headache
    Older man sitting out couch with pain between eyes

    People who are older than 50 and start experiencing recurrent headaches for the first time need to see a doctor. At this age, a new headache is a red flag, because it’s more likely the pain is a symptom of a different health condition. A headache could also be a sign of a drug side effect, since older people are more likely to be taking multiple medications. Especially when other symptoms are present—even ones that aren’t painful, like unexplained weight loss—call your doctor for a checkup to make sure there’s nothing more serious going on.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jul 1
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