How to tell if your headache is serious

How to tell if your headache is serious

Usually, it’s clear when a headache is just a headache. But how can you tell if the pain is actually something more dangerous?

Dr. Hamad Farhat, a neurosurgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill., says headaches can be a sign of serious health issues such as carbon monoxide poisoning, a concussion, stroke or high blood pressure.

Migraines usually only affect one side of the head, will last for about two to 72 hours and are typically made worse by physical activity or certain lights, sounds or smells. With the help of rest and ibuprofen, the migraine should eventually fade.

Alternatively, Dr. Farhat says the below signs usually indicate that your brain pain may be an emergency or something much worse than a migraine:

  • Slurred speech
  • Vision changes
  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Inability to move your arms or legs on one side of the body
  • Nausea
  • High fever
  • The pain comes suddenly instead of forming gradually over time
  • You’d describe the pain as the worst you’ve ever experienced
  • The pain is limiting your ability to function or do everyday tasks

“While migraines may cause blurred vision or feelings of nausea, it’s important to remember that emergent headaches typically are described as the worst ever experienced, involve more than one of the above symptoms or happen quickly and abruptly,” says Dr. Farhat. “If you feel like your headache is more than just a migraine or regular headache, you should never second guess yourself. See a physician immediately or call 911.”

Below are some other headache-related items Dr. Farhat says you should discuss with your doctor but may not warrant a 911 call:

  • You’re experiencing headaches that are waking you up at night or that are worse in the morning
  • You’re experiencing a headache that has lingered for consecutive days but isn’t necessarily interfering with your day-to-day activities
  • You experience headaches regularly
  • You’re 50 years old or older and are experiencing headaches for the first time.

Want to learn more about your risk for stroke? Take a free online quiz here. 

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  1. I need to point out that auras and floaters are often precursors or concurrent with migraines. Nausea is also common, and migraines often impair the ability to function normally. As a person that has dealt with migraines for years, I also want to point out that my migraines have never been controlled with ibuprofen and rest. I need sumatriptan and occasionally frovatriptan to manage them. I think this needs to be updated. Good luck to all my fellow migraine patients!

    • Thank you for this info because I’ve suffered from headaches since I was a kid and I do need glasses but I’m 40 and I still experience the headaches and I been wearing my glasses/contacts for over 30 years now, it’s just scary cause I have had all these symptoms very time and all I get is take some pain medication and rest or your probably hungry or stressed out! 😔

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.