When to Worry About a Headache: What to Know

Medically Reviewed By Heidi Moawad, M.D.

Many conditions can cause headaches, and not all of them may be cause for worry. Generally, try and contact a doctor for any headache that is severe, persistent, or appears alongside other persistent symptoms. Many conditions cause headaches as a symptom. These causes range from mild, temporary, or benign conditions to conditions that require urgent medical care.

As a result, it can be hard to know when to worry about a headache or ask for medical help.

Generally, contact a doctor promptly for any headaches that feel concerning, are persistent, or appear alongside other symptoms.

This article discusses when to contact a doctor or 911 about a headache, including for children and pregnant people.

When to contact a doctor about a headache

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Contact a doctor for a headache if you:

Also, talk with a doctor or health center if you have any questions about headaches or aren’t sure when to seek further help. They can provide tailored guidance based on your health and symptoms.

Read more about the causes and types of headaches.

When to call 911 about a headache

Call 911 or local emergency services for any headache that:

  • starts suddenly
  • doesn’t go away
  • worsens over time
  • feels severe or like the worst ever headache Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source you’ve had, including if you regularly get headaches
  • is triggered suddenly by physical actions or stress, such as coughing, changing posture, exerting physical effort
  • occurs after a head injury or physical accident, such as a car crash or fall

Also, seek emergency care for headaches that occur alongside the following symptoms:

When to contact a doctor for headaches in children

As well as the guidance above, contact a doctor or urgent care center as soon as possible if a child has a headache with any of the following features:

  • a headache that wakes them up from sleep or is present when waking up
  • a headache that gets worse over time
  • a headache triggered by bending down, coughing, or sneezing
  • vomiting alongside a headache
  • a headache and squint or strabismus, whereby the eyes point in different directions or cannot look upward

When to contact a doctor for headaches during pregnancy

Headaches can be common in early pregnancy and tend to improve. Many cases of headaches in pregnancy are due to migraine, tension headaches, or other headache disorders that can improve with medication and self-care.

Learn more about migraine during pregnancy and tension headaches.

However, some serious conditions, such as preeclampsia, can also be responsible for headaches during pregnancy. As a result, sometimes only a doctor can determine whether your headache requires care.

Talk with your medical team if:

  • you have a severe headache
  • you have a headache and experience other health conditions during pregnancy, such as dehydration in the first trimester
  • your headache appears alongside any of the following symptoms:
    • vision problems or changes
    • changes in mental status, such as confusion or severe fatigue
    • weakness or numbness
    • pain below the ribs
    • vomiting
    • sudden increases in swelling in the hands, feet, or face

Read more about preeclampsia, including its symptoms, causes, and treatment.

Diagnosis and after contacting a doctor

A doctor may help identify or rule out possible causes of your headache and prescribe the most appropriate treatment. To do this, they may ask questions about your:

  • symptoms, such as when they started, their severity, and their duration
  • medical history
  • family medical history
  • medications, supplements, or remedies

Consider keeping a written record of your symptoms to share with your medical team, as this can help you remember key information and let them spot any important patterns or signs.

To help with diagnosis, your medical team may also order tests such as Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source :

Summary

There are many possible causes of headaches, and not all cases require medical care.

Generally, you may need to contact a doctor for any headaches that feel concerning, are persistent, or go away and come back, or appear alongside other symptoms.

Call 911 for any headache symptoms that feel severe or sudden, or if you have an underlying health condition.

If you are unsure, talking with a doctor can also help you find out whether it may be worth scheduling an appointment or when to try self-care.

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Medical Reviewer: Heidi Moawad, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2024 Apr 8
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.