What Causes a Headache With Nausea?

Headaches occur for many reasons, and, in some cases, nausea accompanies them. These symptoms can arise in primary headache disorders, in which symptoms arise independently, from no other causes, like migraines, or as the result of another illness such as stomach flu and food poisoning, among many others. Additionally, other health factors, such as dehydration, menstruation, and alcohol consumption can be at fault.    

And while it’s not uncommon to experience headaches with nausea, this combination shouldn’t be taken lightly. This article will explore what these symptoms mean, what conditions can bring them on, and what you can do to manage them.

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The Link Between Headaches and Nausea

In many cases, nausea and headaches result from lifestyle and dietary choices and underlying health conditions. Common among them are:

  • Dehydration: Not drinking enough water causes headaches and is associated with migraines. The daily recommendation for adults is about a half gallon (or eight 8-ounce glasses) of fluids.
  • Low blood sugar: Skipping meals or not eating enough can cause levels of sugar in the blood to drop considerably, leading to headaches and nausea. Low blood sugar is also known as hypoglycemia.
  • Alcohol use: Drinking alcohol can lead to dehydration as well as fluctuations in blood sugar. These occurrences cause the headaches and nausea associated with hangovers. Alcohol may also trigger migraines.
  • Medication side effects: Many prescribed and over-the-counter (OTC) medications can cause these symptoms as side effects, so it’s important to know what you’re taking. Notably, using too many pain-managing medications can cause headaches, a condition known as medication overuse headache (MOH).
  • Caffeine intake: If you’re a regular coffee or tea drinker, you can develop headaches and nausea if you don’t get your regular cup. Interestingly, caffeine influences the activity of blood vessels in the brain and can serve both as a headache trigger and a means of relief.
  • Nicotine use: Among the numerous negative health effects of nicotine and smoking tobacco is headache. Smoking increases pain sensitivity and narrows blood vessels, hindering blood flow to the brain.  

Migraines and Nausea

Migraine is a common type of headache accompanied by nausea. This primary headache disorder, of which there are several types, causes a range of symptoms that can vary from person to person. Generally, migraines cause:

  • Severe, sharp, throbbing and/or pulsating head pain (often on one side of the head)
  • Light and sound sensitivity
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritability and restlessness
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Auras (visual disturbances, such as flashing lights or lines)
  • Tingling or numbness on one side of the body

More Than a Headache

Feeling nauseated and sick when you’re having migraine headache attacks is very common, and it makes managing the condition even more difficult. Since there’s no outright cure for migraine, living with the condition means using medications as well as making lifestyle changes to ease the intensity of attacks and prevent them.

Migraine Triggers

Migraines often have triggers, which are sets of stimuli, foods, drinks, and other factors that can cause attacks. Common triggers include:

  • Bright or flashing lights, and direct sunlight
  • Certain odors or exposure to smoke
  • Alcohol
  • Certain foods, including cured meats, aged cheeses, avocados, yogurt, and many others
  • Estrogen level changes in women, due to menstruation, menopause, or hormone therapies
  • Abruptly stopping caffeine use or medications containing caffeine
  • The side effects of certain medications, including Nitrostat (nitroglycerin, a vasodilator, meaning it dilates the blood vessels) among others
  • Overexertion and physical exhaustion

Specific triggers vary from person to person. If you experience this condition, it’s important to determine what your triggers are.

Related Conditions

A wide range of health factors and diseases bring on headache and nausea, which vary in severity. If you experience these symptoms, you should seek medical attention to find what’s causing them. Here’s a breakdown of the most common associated conditions.

Stress or Anxiety

Feelings of stress or anxiety are also closely linked with a couple of different types of headaches, some of which are accompanied by nausea. You’re more prone to developing migraines when you’re feeling stressed, anxious, or have anxiety disorder.

In addition, periods of stress and anxiety can affect your immune system, making you more susceptible to diseases that cause these symptoms. Depression sometimes accompanies these conditions and is itself associated with poorer health and headache symptoms. There’s a significant connection between mental health and physical health.

Infection or Illness

A great deal of illnesses and infections can also make you nauseous and leave your head aching. These symptoms are common in:

Food Allergies

Nausea and headache can arise as part of your body’s allergic reaction to certain foods, drinks, or medications. Dietary allergies can also help set off migraine attacks. Every case is different—and researchers are still exploring the connections—but many allergens have been linked with symptoms, including:

  • Dairy products
  • Wheat and corn
  • Cane sugar
  • Yeast
  • Citrus
  • Grains

Allergy Symptoms

Dietary allergic reactions can range in severity and, in rare cases, even become fatal. Alongside headache and nausea, they can cause:

Hypertension

High blood pressure, clinically referred to as hypertension, can be debilitating and dangerous to live with. It raises the risk of strokes, heart attacks, and many other issues. While hypertension, itself, isn’t directly linked to headaches and nausea, these symptoms can arise as part of a hypertensive crisis. This is a medical emergency characterized by very high blood pressure.

Low Blood Sodium

Low levels of salt (sodium) in the bloodstream cause a condition called hyponatremia, which brings on dehydration-like symptoms. In addition to headache and nausea, it can cause:

  • Irritability, confusion, and restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Convulsions (uncontrollable muscle contractions)
  • Appetite loss
  • Muscle spasms, weakness, or cramps
  • Vomiting

Food Poisoning

When you consume foods or drinks that contain certain bacteria or viruses, you can develop food poisoning. Specific symptoms vary based on the pathogen that’s infected you, but it generally causes stomach upset and cramping, fever, diarrhea, and nausea and vomiting. This condition also causes dehydration, which can trigger migraines.

Common bacteria and viruses that cause food poisoning include:

COVID-19

COVID-19, the disease caused by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus, can cause a wide array of symptoms. Ranging from mild to very severe, headaches and nausea are among the more common symptoms. The others include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue and/or muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Loss of taste and smell
  • Congestion 

Menstrual Cycle

Fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone levels can also bring on headaches and bouts of nausea. Menstrual migraines (or hormone headaches) can arise either before your period (triggered by premenstrual syndrome) or while you’re menstruating.    

Morning Sickness During Pregnancy

Hormone levels also fluctuate when you’re pregnant, with headache and nausea frequently accompanying morning sickness.

Other Conditions

A wide range of other conditions are also associated with the onset of headache and nausea symptoms, such as:

  • Hematoma (brain bleeding due to head trauma)
  • Seizures (sudden, uncontrollable electrical activity in the brain)
  • Cluster headache (cyclical patterns of intense headaches)
  • Sinus infection (inflammation of the cavities around the nasal passages)
  • Tumors or growths in the head

Treatment

Primarily, treatment depends on whether you have a primary headache disorder, like migraines, or a secondary one, in which the symptoms arise due to other conditions. Specific strategies depend on the case.

Rest and Relaxation

Getting enough rest and being relaxed can help prevent migraines and other kinds of headaches. Strategies to try include:

  • Getting rest during an attack: If you’re experiencing a migraine, one of the best methods of easing the severity of the attack is to go to a dark, quiet place and try to take a nap.
  • Stress management: Learning relaxation techniques to manage stress can also help with headaches and nausea. This may involve certain breathing exercises, listening to calming music, working on muscle relaxation, and employing mindfulness strategies.
  • Biofeedback: Since muscular tension and stress are closely linked with headache onset, identifying when these levels are high can be key for managing symptoms. Biofeedback involves using devices to monitor the markers of tension in the body. This gives you a sense of when symptoms might be coming on so that you can work to manage and treat them.

Stay Hydrated

Dehydration is a very common cause of headaches and nausea. Drinking water when you have an attack can go a long way in easing it. Not only that, headaches are less frequent if you ensure proper daily intake of fluids (about eight 8 oz. glasses a day). Notably, if you’re vomiting, you’ll need to pay extra attention to hydration.

Eat Bland Foods

Certain foods help manage digestive issues, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcers, and heartburn. Called a bland diet, it can also help ease nausea related to headache. This diet includes the following:

  • Refined wheat foods, such as bread, crackers, and pasta
  • Low-fat or fat-free dairy products
  • Pudding and custard
  • Cream of wheat or other refined wheat hot cereals
  • Lean, tender meats, poultry, or seafood
  • Eggs

You’ll also need to steer clear of certain foods, including:

  • High fat or fatty dairy products
  • Raw vegetables, greens, broccoli, cabbage, cucumber, and others
  • Whole grain cereals and bread
  • Spicy and strongly seasoned foods
  • High sugar foods
  • Fermented or pickled foods

OTC Pain Medicine

There are also a number of over-the-counter medications that can help ease headache pain and nausea. Common types include:

Avoiding Medication Overuse Headaches

If you find yourself taking OTC pain medications more than twice a week for headaches, it’s time to seek medical help. Taking larger amounts of these drugs over a longer period of time can make your symptoms worse.

Prevention

Making lifestyle changes and incorporating positive habits can also help prevent the onset of migraines or other conditions that cause headaches and nausea. Four ways to prevent migraines are:

  • Exercise: Ensuring you get enough physical activity has many health benefits, and it’s essential for headache prevention. Even a little activity a day—30 minutes of walking or cycling—can help a great deal.    
  • Avoid triggers: Pay attention to what you’re eating, scents, or types of lights that set off your headaches. Once identified, you can work to avoid them.
  • Regular eating schedule: Another common factor in migraines and headaches is skipping meals. In general, aim to eat meals at consistent times every day, and avoid snacking.
  • Good sleep hygiene: As with meals, disruptions in sleep and sleeping inconsistent hours can make you more susceptible to migraines. Aim to go to bed and get up at the same time, keep your bed a work-free zone, and try to get seven to eight hours of sleep every night.   
  • Stress management: Lifestyle changes can also reduce your overall stress. Taking part in daily meditation or yoga—or even finding time to take a bath or do a relaxing activity—can help you manage this tension, preventing attacks.

Summary

Nausea accompanies headache in cases of migraines, and these symptoms also arise in a range of other diseases, such as the flu, the common cold, and COVID-19. In addition, endemic health conditions, such as low blood sugar, low blood sodium, dehydration, pregnancy, and menstruation, can bring them on.

Treatments for headache and nausea depend on the specific case and include managing stress, sleeping consistently, ensuring hydration and a healthy diet, steering clear of triggers, and getting exercise. Additionally, over-the-counter medications or prescribed medications are considered.

A Word From Verywell

While headaches can be common, and everyone occasionally experiences nausea, it’s important to be vigilant if you get these symptoms. Oftentimes, treatment is a multifaceted approach, and there’s no simple or clear-cut cure. However, if you’re proactive about getting the help you need and making beneficial lifestyle changes, you’ll figure out ways to manage these symptoms and even stop them.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Does throwing up relieve headaches or migraines?

    Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of migraine attacks, accompanying severe headaches and other symptoms. For some, however, throwing up can actually help relieve the pain, something which was found in a study published in a study from 2013. However, while vomiting may help, trying to induce yourself to vomit isn’t recommended.

  • How can you get rid of a throbbing headache?

    After a headache starts, there are several steps you can take:

    • Drink water.
    • If you have a migraine, find a quiet, dimly lit space to rest.
    • Consider OTC pain relievers, such as Excedrin, Aleve, or others.
    • If you drink coffee, have some.
    • Eat a snack.

    For difficult cases of migraines, triptans like Imitrex, Zomig, and Maxalt may be prescribed. These generally stop headaches within two hours of you’re taking it.

  • When should you be concerned about a headache?

    While headaches are very common and most aren’t dangerous, they can be signs of serious conditions. If you’ve experienced any of the following, you should get medical help:

    • You’ve lost consciousness following a blow to the head.
    • Your headaches set on very suddenly.
    • The pain is unusually severe and debilitating.
    • Your headache steadily worsens over 24 hours

    Also, get immediate help if your head pain is accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

    • Fever and neck stiffness
    • Confusion, slurred speech, and memory problems
    • Loss of balance, as well as problems coordinating limb movements
    • Severe pain in one eye with redness in that eye
    • Vision problems
    • Difficulty chewing and swallowing
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12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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