Headaches - could it be serious?

Written by: 
Dr Knut Schroeder, General Practitioner and Author, Diagnosing Your Health Symptoms For Dummies

Almost everyone suffers from occasional headaches – you’re not alone. Fortunately, most headaches – such as migraines and tension headaches – have no serious underlying cause. But apart from ‘being a pain’, headaches can sometimes be worrying, though. You don’t need to be overly concerned if you experience the following:

  • You’ve always had headaches that come and go and that settle completely between episodes.
  • Your headache is mild and doesn’t make you feel unwell.
  • You don’t have any other symptoms.

Rest, relaxation and simple pain killers from your pharmacist or the supermarket are often all you need to relieve your symptoms. Common but annoying causes of headaches include:

Tension headache

Commonly caused by stressRelating to injury or concern., lack of sleep or tightening of the neck muscles, tension headache is often constant and tends to affect both sides of the head. You may also experience a feeling of pressure behind your eyes. Usually, this type of headache does not interfere too much with people’s lives. Routine physical activity doesn’t normally make tension headache worse.


Migraine affects one in ten people in the UK and often causes severe and usually recurrent headaches. Migraines are more likely to impact on your daily activities. They come in different forms, and you may experience other symptoms such as eye problems, temporary weakness in your arm or leg or other symptoms, usually between 15 and 60 minutes before the headache comes on (called aura). The typical migraine headache tends to be throbbing and usually affects only one side of the head. See your doctor if you have a first migraine when you’re over 50, you notice a change in your usual migraine symptoms, or if your migraine attacks happen more frequently.

Rarely, a headache may have a more serious underlying cause. Seek medical advice if you notice one or more of the following – or anything else unusual:

  • A sudden, very severe headache – ‘like being hit with a hammer’.
  • Headache together with a stiff neck, high fever, vomiting or speech problems.
  • You feel increasingly drowsy, unsteady, or have problems with co-ordination.
  • You notice a severe discomfort in your eyes when you’re exposed to bright light.
  • Your headaches occur more and more frequently, or get progressively worse.
  • You continue to have a severe headache after a head injury.

You can seek advice from your pharmacist on suitable treatments. Sussing out headaches can be tricky, so if you’re not sure whether you need to worry or not, contact your doctor for advice.