Types of headaches and symptoms

Most people experience headaches now and then. They can be caused by stress or tension, changes in blood pressure, hunger, eyestrain, physical exertion, menstrual cycles and more. 14 million Americans are living with migraine disease and headache disorders, and that number grows to 1 billion people worldwide.1

Headaches may make you feel bad for a little while, and then they disappear. But some headaches are brutal. Understanding the types of headaches is a good place to start — here’s what you need to know.

Types of headaches

A headache can be throbbing or a consistent, painful pressure on your head and neck. There are many kinds of headaches, and each has a different cause and a different treatment. Some of the common types of headaches include:2

Tension headache

This is the most common kind of headache. It often occurs when your neck and scalp muscles become tense in response to stress, depression, a head injury or anxiety.3 It may last a couple of hours, and it usually responds to over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or naproxen.

Sinus headache

This type of headache can happen when you’ve got a bad cold. The hollow spaces behind your cheeks, eyes and nose get filled up with mucus.4 You may feel painful pressure and tenderness, often right behind your eyes. It can last a couple of days if it’s not treated. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if there’s a bacterial infection. Over-the-counter decongestant medications can help, too.5

Cluster headache

These happen in clusters, as the name suggests, meaning you may get several of them over a period of days or weeks. They may be related to histamine, which your body releases to fight allergies, or serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates your mood.6 They are quite painful and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours. If you get them frequently, your doctor may treat them with oxygen therapy, prescription pain medication or steroids.


Migraines are more than just a bad headache. In fact, head pain is only one of the symptoms of a migraine. In fact, migraines are a nervous system disease that has many symptoms. Genetics, gender and stress levels all contribute to migraine.7 According to the American Migraine Foundation, 3 times more women than men live with migraines, and research has revealed that hormones likely play a role.8

Here are 4 signs that you might be experiencing a migraine:

1. You’re experiencing a lot of pain

This could be described as a severe throbbing pain that can last between 4 and 72 hours.9 It often starts on one side of your head, then travels to other parts of the body. It may send you to bed, keeping you from work or school.

2. You’re experiencing symptoms beyond head pain

It’s not just the throbbing in your head — there are many other unpleasant symptoms that can happen without warning, including:10

  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Pain when you move, cough, or sneeze

3. You’re experiencing an “aura”

About 1 in 3 people with migraines have symptoms before the pain actually begins. Some common signs of aura are:11

  • Visual disturbances, such as seeing flashing or twinkling lights
  • Partial or total vision loss in one eye
  • Neurological problems, such as difficulty speaking
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

4. You’re feeling sick afterwards

If you’re a migraine sufferer, you might feel bad for a day or so after your headache finally goes away. This is the “postdrome” phase of a migraine, also known as a “migraine hangover.” It’s the last stage of a migraine. Symptoms may include:12

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Body aches and stiff neck
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Extreme hunger or thirst
  • Stomach troubles
  • Mood changes 

Other people in your family have migraines

According to the American Migraine Foundation, if both your parents have migraine, there’s a 50% to 75% chance that you’ll have it too.13 So, it’s important to know your family history. Talk to your relatives about their headaches: the age they were when they started, the typical symptoms and duration and the treatments that seem to help. A simple conversation could provide valuable information that your doctor can use to understand your migraine situation and find a way to treat them.

Talk with your doctor

No matter the type of headache you get, any can be painful and slow you down. If you keep getting them often, talk to your doctor to determine what kind you’re having. There’s a wide range of treatments, from effective new drugs to neuromodulation devices. Headaches are very common and treatable. It may take a bit of trial and error, but relief is possible. 

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