Causes of Your Afternoon Headache

We've all experienced headaches. The dull aching pain can make it difficult to get anything done. But what's a headache and what can cause it?

A headache is a pain or discomfort in any region of your head. Headaches can occur on one or both sides of your head or be isolated to a specific spot. Headaches can present themselves as sharp pain, a throbbing sensation, or a dull aching feeling among other qualities.

There are two types of headaches: primary and secondary headaches. Primary Headaches are headaches that aren't caused by another condition. These include cluster headaches, migraines, and tension headaches.

Secondary headaches are related to a medical condition such as head injury, high blood pressure, infection, trauma, and tumor. Side effects of medication or substance withdrawal can also trigger headaches.

An afternoon headache would be considered a primary or secondary headache.

This article will discuss symptoms, causes, and treatments of afternoon headaches.

Woman with a migraine

LaylaBird / Getty Images

Symptoms

Headaches that begin in the afternoon aren't different from other headaches, except for their timing. Afternoon headaches can often be triggered by something that occurred during the day, such as muscle tension, drinking too much coffee, or skipping lunch.

Typical headache symptoms may include:

  • Pain that's usually felt on both sides
  • Pain is dull or feels like a band around the head
  • Pain may involve the back part of the head or neck
  • Pain is mild to moderate, but not severe

Possible Causes

You may experience a headache in the afternoon due to things like muscle tension, dehydration, stress, hunger, among other things. The following are potential causes of an afternoon headache.

Dehydration

Many people can get a headache in the afternoon due to dehydration. We're so busy working during the day and it's understandable to overlook hydration.

When a person experiences dehydration, they can also display symptoms such as:

Muscle Tension

Tension headaches can occur when muscles in your neck, jaw, or shoulders are tense. This causes pain which then radiates to the head. Tension headaches can begin slowly and progress through the day and become worse.

You may notice this type of headache after being in an uncomfortable position, such as sitting at your desk too long. The muscles in your neck or shoulders might feel tight and tense.

Tension headaches can also be referred to as "stress headaches" and are experienced by more than one third of men and one half of women. As the name suggests, they are thought to be caused by stress.

Migraine

A migraine is a type of neurological headache, though it can also include genetic factors. Changes in nerve pathways, neurotransmitters, and other brain chemicals can trigger a migraine.

In some cases, you can experience visual disturbances, sensitivity to light, and unusual sensations in your body when having a migraine. You might also experience nausea and vomiting.

Stress, and certain smells, sights, sounds, or foods can trigger a migraine. Specific triggers can include:

  • Stress
  • Menstrual cycle changes
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Alcohol
  • Food

Caffeine

Caffeine can be one of the reasons you're experiencing a headache in the afternoon, especially if you typically have multiple cups of coffee. Excessive caffeine consumption can lead to cognitive symptoms, depression, fatigue, insomnia, cardiovascular changes, and headaches.

It's wise to watch your caffeine intake. If you're someone that drinks a lot of coffee, you may experience a withdrawal headache when you miss your usual cup. Withdrawal headaches that you feel in the afternoon can be a direct result of your body noticing it hasn't received its usual dose of caffeine.

Alcohol

While a glass of wine might seem like a good idea to help you relax, alcohol is a common headache trigger, especially when ingested in large quantities. The principal substances of certain alcoholic drinks can provoke a headache. These substances include:

Headaches and Women

In the United States, Headaches cause 112 million sick days each year. While one-third of the population experiences headaches, women have more than men. Differences in hormones could be among the reasons women have more headaches than men do.

Hormone-related headache triggers include:


Treatment

Certain lifestyle changes may reduce your likelihood of experiencing a headache in the afternoon. For example:

  • Make sure to take a break while sitting at your computer and get up at least once an hour.
  • Avoid sitting in the same position for too long. Adjust your posture and the position of your legs—whether placed flat on the floor, folded, or crossed on your chair.
  • Try to stretch for at least five to 10 minutes every couple of hours.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Eat regular and healthy meals, including more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and avoid processed foods.

You should also avoid certain headache triggers such as alcohol and caffeine.

Other treatments for afternoon headaches include over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

While headaches in the afternoon (or any time of day) typically aren't a cause of concern, they can sometimes be a sign of a more serious issue such as a brain tumor, a stroke, meningitis, or encephalitis.

If your headache symptoms continue to increase in pain or discomfort and have lasted over 72 hours, seek medical attention.

Emergency Situations

You should call your healthcare provider or go to the emergency room if your headache pain causes vision impairment or if you have uncontrollable vomiting.

Summary

When experiencing a headache in the afternoon, it's important to be aware of your symptoms so you can recognize what kind of headache you're dealing with, such as a primary or secondary headache.

If you have a primary headache, understanding your symptoms can help you identify the possible causes, such as dehydration, alcohol, caffeine, or muscle tension, and you'll be able to better identify what can be done to alleviate the pain.

Once you know how to identify the type of headache you're experiencing and what's causing it, you can eliminate triggers and find the proper treatment, such as taking more frequent breaks from sitting in the same position, drinking plenty of water, or stretching.

A Word From Verywell

Experiencing a chronic headache in the afternoon can be challenging and disrupting. Remember that you can take steps to avoid your triggers and keep symptoms at bay. You don't have to live with constant discomfort or pain.

Know your limits and begin to recognize your triggers. Consider starting a symptom journal to keep track of when you experience pain and what might be causing it. Being aware of what's causing your headaches can be the first step to getting them under control.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many types of headaches are there?

    There is a wide range of headaches that fall into two main categories: primary and secondary headaches. Primary headaches are headaches that aren't due to a medical condition. These include cluster headaches, migraines, and tension headaches. Secondary headaches are related to a medical condition such as head injury, high blood pressure, infection, trauma, and tumor.

  • What can pregnant women take for headaches?

    If you're pregnant and experiencing headaches, it's first recommended to call your healthcare provider. They will advise you as to what is considered a safe pain medication while pregnant. Tylenol (acetaminophen) is considered safe while pregnant, but should only be taken in low doses when needed.

  • What essential oil is good for headaches?

    If you're experiencing headaches, a good alternative treatment can be an essential oil:

    • Lavender oil can help with a migraine
    • peppermint oil can help with a tension headache
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By Caroline Chirichella
Caroline Chirichella is a freelance writer with a focus on mental health, digestive health, and parenting.