Medical Author: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR
A headache (medically termed cephalgia) is a pain in the head. Headaches can be located anywhere in the head, including above the eyes or the ears, behind the head (occipital headache), the top of the head (coronal headache), or in the back of the upper neck. Headache, like chest pain or backache, has many causes.
All headaches are considered primary headaches or secondary headaches. Primary headaches are not associated with other diseases. Examples of primary headaches are migraine headaches, tension headaches, and cluster headaches. Secondary headaches are caused by other diseases. The associated disease may be minor or major.
Headaches can be associated with symptoms such as
- pain in the eyes when looking into bright lights (photophobia),
- tenderness of the scalp,
- tightness sensation in the head, and
There are many types of headaches. Tension headaches are the most common type of primary headache. As many as 90% of adults have tension headaches. Tension headaches are more common among women than men.
Migraine headaches are the second most common type of primary headache. An estimated 28 million people in the U.S. have migraine headaches. Migraine headaches affect children as well as adults. Before puberty, boys and girls are affected equally by migraine headaches, but after puberty more women than men have them. Migraine often goes undiagnosed or is misdiagnosed as tension or sinus headaches.
Cluster headaches are a rare but important type of primary headache, affecting mainly men. The average age of cluster headache sufferers is 28-30 years of age, although headaches may begin in childhood.
Secondary headaches may result from innumerable conditions, ranging from life-threatening ones such as brain tumors, strokes, meningitis, vasculitis, and subarachnoid hemorrhages to less serious but common conditions such as withdrawal from caffeine, sinus infection (sinusitis), and discontinuation of analgesics (painkilling medication). Pregnancy sometimes causes headaches. Many people suffer from "mixed" headache disorders in which tension headaches or secondary headaches may trigger migraine.
The treatment of the headache depends on the type and severity of the headache and on other factors, such as the age of the patient.
Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.
Pictures, Images, Illustrations & Quizzes
Headaches Quiz: Learn About Headache Pain
If you're plagued with headaches, our Headaches Quiz may help you identify causes, triggers, symptoms, and treatments for...
Migraine Headaches: 14 Non-Drug Treatments for Migraines
Learn about 14 non-drug treatments for migraines. Acupuncture, biofeedback and massage therapy are among this list of non-drug...
Migraine or Headache? Migraine Symptoms, Triggers, Treatment
What does a migraine feel like? Discover the difference between headaches and migraines. Learn to spot migraine symptoms early,...
Pictures of Famous People Coping With Migraines
See how celebrities cope with the pain caused by migraines. Learn their methods used to prevent and relieve migraine pain....
Slideshow: 12 Surprising Headache Triggers Tips
Painful headaches can ruin your productivity and quality of life. But what triggers headaches and migraines? Learn some...
Causes of Headache
14 Warning Signs and Symptoms of Stroke
Stroke is a major cause of death and disability in the US. Early identification and treatment of stroke helps reduce the risk of...
Brain aneurysm (cerebral aneurysm) is caused by microscopic damage to artery walls, infections of the artery walls, tumors,...
Anthrax is a deadly infectious disease that may be transmitted to humans by infected animals or by biological warfare. There are...
Anxiety is a feeling of apprehension and fear characterized by symptoms such as trouble concentrating, headaches, sleep problems,...
Asthma in Children
Asthma in children manifests with symptoms such as coughing and wheezing. Rates of asthma in children are increasing. Asthma in...
Astigmatism is an eye condition in which the cornea is abnormally curved and causes out-of-focus vision. Symptoms of astigmatism...
Cancers that form from brain tissue are called primary brain tumors. Brain tumors may be malignant (brain cancer) or benign....
Brain Damage: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment
Brain damage causes destruction or deterioration of brain cells. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) and acquired brain injury (ABI) are...
Brain Lesions (Lesions on the Brain)
A brain lesion is defined as an area of damaged brain. Brain lesions (lesions on the brain) are caused by: trauma,...
Brain Tumor (Symptoms, Signs, Types, Causes, Survival Rates)
A brain tumor can be either non-cancerous (benign) or cancerous (malignant), primary, or secondary. Common symptoms of a primary...
Broken Bone (Types of Bone Fractures)
A broken bone is a fracture. There are different types of fractures, such as: compressed, open, stress, greenstick,...
The bacteria Brucella causes brucellosis, an infectious zoonotic disease in humans. Symptoms and signs include fatigue, fever,...
Bullying is repeated physical or verbal aggression that involves an imbalance of power. Types of bullying include physical,...
Cat Scratch Disease
Cat scratch disease (CSD or cat scratch fever), a bacterial disease caused by Bartonella henselae, is characterized by fever,...
Chikungunya Virus (Chikungunya Infection)
Chikungunya virus is an infection spread (transmitted) through a bite from an infected mosquito. Common symptoms of Chikungunya...
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS or SEID)
Chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) or systemic exertion intolerance disease (SEID) is a debilitating and complex disorder...
Cold vs. Flu
Though the common cold and flu share many signs and symptoms, they are caused by different viruses. Signs and symptoms include...
Cold, Flu, Allergy Treatments
Before treating a cold, the flu, or allergies with over-the-counter (OTC) medications, it's important to know what's causing the...
Coma is the inability to waken or react to the surrounding environment. The Glasgow Coma Scale is frequently used to measure the...
The common cold (viral upper respiratory tract infection) is a contagious illness that may be caused by various viruses. Symptoms...
Concussion is a short-lived loss of brain function that is due to head trauma. There are two types of concussion, simple and...
The cornea is the clear outer layer of the eye. If it is damaged by disease, infection, or injury, vision problems may occur....
Cough (Chronic Cough)
Chronic cough is a cough that does not go away and is generally a symptom of another disorder such...
Cysticercosis (Pork Tapeworm Infection)
Cysticercosis is an infection caused by Taenia solium, the pork tapeworm. Symptoms include seizures, lethargy, nausea and...
Dengue fever is contracted from the bite of a striped Aedes aegypti mosquito. Symptoms and signs of dengue include headache,...
Depression is an illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts and affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way one...
Domestic violence, or intimate partner abuse, is when one person in an intimate relationship uses any means to control the other...
Double vision (diplopia) is a symptom that my indicate Graves' disease, myasthenia gravis, stroke, multiple sclerosis,...
Early Pregnancy Symptoms and Signs
Pregnancy symptoms can vary from woman to woman, and not all women experience the same symptoms. When women do experience...
Ebola (Ebola Virus Disease or Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever)
Ebola hemorrhagic fever (HF) is an often-fatal disease that causes fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, sore throat, stomach...
Encephalopathy means brain disease, damage, or malfunction. Causes of encephalopathy are varied and numerous. The main symptom of...
Eye strain is a symptom caused by looking at something for a long time. Symptoms and signs include redness, light sensitivity,...
Although a fever technically is any body temperature above the normal of 98.6 F (37 C), in practice, a person is usually not...
Influenza (flu) is a respiratory illness caused by a virus. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, headache,...
Fungal meningitis is a rare disease that is not contagious. Symptoms include fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting....
Giant Cell Arteritis (GCA or Temporal Arteritis)
Giant cell arteritis, inflammation of blood vessel walls, affects 10%-15% of polymyalgia rheumatica patients. Symptoms of giant...
Glaucoma is a common eye condition in which the fluid pressure inside the eye rises because of slowed fluid drainage from the...
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is a disease transmitted by rodents. Symptoms include fever and muscle pain. HPS can be...
Heart attack happens when a blood clot completely obstructs a coronary artery supplying blood to the heart muscle. A heart attack...
Heart Attack Treatment
A heart attack involves damage or death of part of the heart muscle due to a blood clot. The aim of heart attack treatment is to...
Hereditary Angioedema (HAE)
Hereditary angioedema or HAE is a genetic disease that causes swelling of the skin and tissues beneath it. Symptoms of HAE...
How Long Is a Cold or Flu Contagious?
Viruses cause the common cold and the flu. Early symptoms and signs for a cold and the flu are similar, however, flu symptoms are...
Is Lyme Disease Contagious?
Lyme disease may be transmitted to humans via the bite of an infected tick. The bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi causes the disease...
Is Malaria Contagious?
Malaria is transmitted via the bite of an infected mosquito. The incubation period for malaria depends upon the species of...
Is Meningitis Contagious?
Meningitis, inflammation of the meninges, symptoms and signs include neck stiffness, headache, and fever. There are five types of...
Is Norovirus Contagious?
Noroviruses cause food poisoning symptoms in infected individuals. Norovirus is transmitted via direct and indirect contact....
Is Scarlet Fever Contagious?
Group A strep bacteria cause scarlet fever. Scarlet fever is transmitted via person-to-person contact and by coming in contact...
Is Swine Flu (H1N1) Contagious?
Swine flu (H1N1) is a contagious virus that spreads when an infected individual expels virus-containing droplets into the air...
Is the Ebola Virus Contagious?
Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a highly contagious disease that is transmitted through direct contact. Ebola's incubation period...
Jet lag (desynchonosis) is a temporary disorder that results from travel across time zones. Symptoms include anxiety,...
Lassa fever is a viral hemorrhagic fever that causes flu-like symptoms. Ribavirin is the standard treatment for Lassa fever....
Legionellosis is an infection caused by the Legionella pneumophila bacterium. There are two forms of legionellosis: Pontiac fever...
Leptospirosis is an infectious disease that causes symptoms such as fever, headache, and chills. Treatment for leptospirosis...
Listeria is a type of bacteria that can cause food poisoning. Listeriosis symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, and...
Low Blood Sugar (Hypoglycemia)
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is a syndrome in which a person's blood sugar is dangerously low. People with type 1 and type 2...
Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus or SLE)
Systemic lupus erythematosus is a condition characterized by chronic inflammation of body tissues caused by autoimmune disease....
Malaria is a disease that is spread by the bite of an infected Anopheles mosquito. Malaria symptoms include fever, chills,...
Marburg Virus Disease
Marburg virus disease is a zoonotic infection that produces symptoms such as chills, headaches, fever, and muscle aches. The...
MELAS syndrome, a rare form of dementia, stands for Mitochondrial Encephalopathy, Lactic Acidosis, and Stroke-like episodes....
Melioidosis (Whitmore's disease) is an infectious disease caused by Burkholderia pseudomallei bacteria. Symptoms include...
Encephalitis is a brain inflammation that causes sudden fever, vomiting, headache, light sensitivity, stiff neck and back,...
Meningococcemia is a bloodstream infection caused by Neisseria meningitides. Meningococcemia symptoms include fever, headache,...
Mental health is an optimal way of thinking, relating to others, and feeling. All of the diagnosable mental disorders fall under...
Migraine headaches are severe headaches that are sensitive to light, sounds, and smells. Some people who suffer from...
Mucormycosis (zygomycosis) is a fungal infection caused by Zygomycetes. Symptoms and signs include fever, headache, coughing,...
Mumps is an acute viral illness caused by the mumps virus. Symptoms of mumps include fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness,...
Naegleria fowleri is an amoeba found in freshwater and soil. Infection results when the amoeba enters the nose and travels to the...
Nasopharyngeal cancer is a form of cancer in which malignant cells form in the nasopharynx tissues. Risk factors include being of...
Neck Pain (Cervical Pain)
Neck pain (cervical pain) may be caused by any number of disorders and diseases. Tenderness is another symptom of neck pain....
Norovirus infection causes stomach flu, or gastroenteritis. It's a very contagious illness with symptoms that include nausea and...
Occipital Neuralgia (A Type of Headache)
Occipital neuralgia is a type of headache that involves inflammation or irritation of occipital nerves. Signs and symptoms...
Paget's disease is a chronic bone disorder due to irregular breakdown and formation of bone tissue. Symptoms of Paget's disease...
Plague (Black Death)
Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. Transmission to humans occurs via fleas that have bitten...
Polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) is a disorder of the muscles and joints that causes pain and stiffness in the arms, neck, shoulders,...
Powassan Virus Disease
Powassan (POW) virus disease is a rare tick-borne disease that causes symptoms such as confusion, memory problems, fever,...
Q fever is a highly infectious disease that causes high fever, diarrhea, cough, and sweating. Infected animals may transmit Q...
Rabies is a viral disease that is transmitted via the bite of an infected animal. Symptoms include fever, headaches, and...
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)
Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a tick-borne disease that causes symptoms and signs such as fever, rash, headache, and muscle...
Salmonella infection (salmonellosis) is typically caused by the consumption of contaminated foods. Symptoms of salmonellosis...
Sarcoidosis, a disease resulting from chronic inflammation, causes small lumps (granulomas) to develop in a great range of body...
Scarlet Fever (Scarlatina)
Scarlet fever, a bacterial infection caused by group A Streptococcus bacteria, causes symptoms and signs such as fever, rash with...
Separation anxiety disorder is a common childhood anxiety disorder that has many causes. Infants, children, older kids and adults...
Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful rash caused by the varicella zoster virus. Other shingles symptoms include headache,...
Sick Building Syndrome
Multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) or also referred to as sick building syndrome or environmental illness is the name given by...
Sinus Infection (Sinusitis)
Sinus infection (sinusitis) is caused by allergies, infection, and chemicals or other irritants of sinuses. Signs and symptoms...
STDs in Men
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are infections transmitted during sexual contact. They may be caused by viruses, bacteria,...
Strep throat is a bacterial infection of the throat. Signs and symptoms of strep throat include headache, nausea,...
Group A streptococcal infections are caused by group A streptococcus, a bacteria that causes a variety of health problems,...
Stress occurs when forces from the outside world impinge on the individual. Stress is a normal part of life. However,...
Stroke (Signs, Symptoms, Warning Signs)
A stroke is an interruption of the blood supply to part of the brain caused by either a blood clot (ischemic) or bleeding...
Novel H1N1 influenza A virus infection (swine flu) is an infection that generally is transferred from an infected pig to a human,...
Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ)
Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome is a disorder that causes symptoms like pain, clicking, and popping of the jaw. TMJ is...
A tension headache s one of the most common types of headaches, and the exact cause is not known. Factors that may contribute to...
Tetanus is an often-fatal disease caused by nerve toxins produced by the common bacteria Clostridium tetani. In a seven-day...
Ticks are known transmitters of disease to humans and animals. Tick-borne diseases include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted...
A toothache is a pain on or around a tooth. It may be caused by a variety of things from a cavity, abscess, or even sinusitis....
Toxic Shock Syndrome (TSS)
Toxic shock syndrome is an infection that causes symptoms such as low blood pressure, fever, and a rash with peeling skin....
Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC)
Tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC) is a rare genetic disease caused by defects on two genes. The signs and symptoms of TSC vary...
Tularemia (rabbit fever) is an infection caused by the Francisella tularensis bacteria. People can become infected with tularemia...
Typhoid fever is an illness caused by the Salmonella typhi bacteria. The illness is contracted by ingesting the bacteria in...
Typhus is a disease caused by Rickettsia bacteria. Symptoms and signs include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and...
Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococci (VRE)
Vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) infection is the most common type of infection acquired by patients while hospitalized....
Vasculitis is a general term for a group of uncommon diseases which feature inflammation of the blood vessels. Each form of...
West Nile Virus
West Nile virus (West Nile encephalitis) is a brain infection caused by a virus. People become infected with the virus after...
Yellow fever is an infectious disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Side effects are rare with the yellow fever vaccine....
Zika Virus (Zika Fever)
The Zika virus is transmitted by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito. Symptoms and signs of a Zika virus infection include...
Other Causes of Headache
- Bacterial Infection (Inside or Outside of the Head)
- Cluster Headache
- Cold Drink or Food ("Brain Freeze")
- Compression of Head (Hat, Helmet, etc.)
- Illicit Drug Withdrawal
- Intracranial Hemorrhage
- Medications (Both Prescription and Nonprescription)
- Sexual Activity
- Trauma Injury to Head or Neck
- Viral Infection (Inside or Outside of the Head)
Examples of Medications for Headache
- acetaminophen (Tylenol, Tylenol Arthritis Pain, Tylenol Ext, Little Fevers Children's Fever/Pain)
- amitriptyline (Elavil, Endep)
- aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid, Bayer, Ecotrin, and others)
- Birth Control Pills (List of Oral Contraceptives and Side Effects)
- Calcium Channel Blockers (CCBs)
- gabapentin (Neurontin, Gralise, Horizant, Fanatrex FusePag) Side Effects, Dosage, and Abuse
- ibuprofen (Advil, Children's Advil/Motrin, Medipren, Motrin, Nuprin, PediaCare Fever, and others)
- naproxen, Anaprox, Naprelan, Naprosyn, Aleve
- nortriptyline, Pamelor, Aventyl - has been discontinued in the U.S.
- OTC Pain Relievers and Fever Reducers
- propranolol, Inderal, Inderal LA, Innopran XL
- sumatriptan, Imitrex, Alsuma, Imitrex STATdose System, Sumavel DosePro
- tacrolimus (Prograf, Astagraf XL, Envarsus XR)
- valproic acid, divalproex, Depakote, Depakote Sprinkle, Depakote ER, Depakene, Depacon, Stavzor
- Zecuity (sumatriptan iontophoretic patch)
- zolmitriptan, Zomig, Zomig-ZMT
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter