Symptoms of a Headache

The most prominent symptom of headaches is head pain, which can range from mild to severe. But headache symptoms can go beyond head pain. For some people, other symptoms—like nausea, vision changes, or sensitivity to light—add to the discomfort and distress of a headache.

Primary headaches occur on their own, without an underlying cause. Headaches that result from an underlying medical condition are called secondary headaches. This article describes the common symptoms of primary and secondary headaches.

Terrible headache.
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Frequent Symptoms

Primary headaches are more common than secondary headaches, and they tend to recur. The most common types of primary headaches are tension headaches, sinus headaches, and migraines. Secondary headaches, which are less common, can be indicators of an underlying condition, such as a brain tumor or meningitis (infection around the brain).

While there are some differences in the symptoms of different headache types, it is always best to get medical attention, especially if your headaches are new, severe, or accompanied by other symptoms.

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are common. They often occur due to factors such as lack of sleep, stress, muscle tension, looking at screens for too long, They can also occur without a specific cause. Some people have frequent muscle tension headaches, but many people only experience them once in a while.

Common symptoms of tension headaches:

  • Mild to moderate head pain, usually described as dull
  • Pain around the forehead, usually on both sides of the head
  • A sense of muscle tightness in the forehead, jaw, neck, shoulders, or a combination of these

Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches are fairly common. They can occur when you have a cold, allergies, or any other reason that causes congestion. They tend to be mild to moderate in severity, and they can begin suddenly and resolve as soon as the sinus congestion is relieved.

Common symptoms of sinus headaches:

  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Fullness of the sinuses
  • Soreness on the cheeks or forehead
  • Watery eyes


Migraines are more common in females than males, although they can affect males. They often occur in a pattern that corresponds to the menstrual cycle, and they can be triggered by lack of sleep, alcohol, skipping meals, stress, certain odors, medications, and certain foods.

Common symptoms of migraines:

  • Headache on one side of the head
  • Pulsating quality
  • Neck stiffness or pain
  • Photophobia (discomfort when looking at light)
  • Phonophobia (discomfort from hearing noises)
  • Hyperosmia (sensitivity to odors)
  • Nausea, vomiting, or both
  • Abdominal discomfort
  • Mood changes, which can range from depression to euphoria
  • Food cravings

Aura symptoms can include vision loss, seeing various shapes or bright spots or flashes of light, experiencing pins and needles sensations in an arm or leg, weakness or numbness in the face or one side of the body, and difficulty speaking.

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache is a rare type of headache. It is more common among adults males, and it can occur in clusters—for days or weeks on end, without symptoms in between the clusters.

Common symptoms of cluster headaches:

  • Severe pain around one eye, with redness and tearing
  • One-sided head pain, always on the same side of the head
  • Congestion or a runny nose on the same side as the pain

Cluster headache is often considered a type of migraine. Most people who have cluster headaches do not also experience other types of migraines.

Rare Symptoms

Secondary headaches are less common than primary headaches. They can occur as a result of meningitis, brain tumor, concussion, bleeding in the brain, low cerebrospinal fluid pressure, stroke, vascular malformation in the brain, or as a medication side effect.

Symptoms of secondary headaches can include:

  • Severe head pain
  • Vision changes can include blurred vision, double vision, and decreased vision
  • Droopy eyelid
  • Headache symptoms that change substantially with changes in body position
  • Persistent, recurrent vomiting
  • Neck or back stiffness
  • Severe dizziness, vertigo (a sense that the room is spinning), trouble walking
  • Ear pressure or pain
  • Fevers
  • Confusion
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weakness or sensory changes on one side of the face or body

You should get medical attention if you experience any symptoms consistent with a secondary headache–the underlying causes can be dangerous to your health and will usually improve with treatment.


The most common complications of primary headaches are not due to the headaches themselves, but rather to their treatment. For example, excessive use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) can cause stomach pain and gastrointestinal bleeding.

One common complication is a medication-overuse headache (or rebound headache), which can happen if you take painkillers too frequently. This is a serious headache that must be treated by discontinuing the medication cycle. However, for some types of medication, this can lead to withdrawal symptoms, so the process should be managed by a healthcare professional.

Rare complications of headaches include:

When to See a Healthcare Provider

You should make an appointment to see a healthcare provider if you are experiencing new headaches or worsening headaches or if your headache medicine is no longer effective.

You should get urgent medical attention if you have signs of a secondary headache.

Emergency Attention

You should get emergency medical attention if:

  • You have had a head injury
  • The headache comes on after vigorous physical activity
  • You are experiencing your first severe headache
  • You are having the worse headache of your life
  • You have slurred speech, vision changes, problems moving your limbs, confusion, memory loss, or a seizure
  • You have a fever, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting

A Word From Verywell

If you have headaches, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider. You may be able to get relief and learn how to prevent a recurrence and complications.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are types of headaches?

    Common types of headaches are tension headaches, sinus headaches, migraines, and secondary headaches

  • What are the symptoms of a migraine?

    Migraine pain is usually pulsing or throbbing and focused on one side of the head. A migraine can also cause nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, and an increased sense of smell. Vision changes can also occur with a migraine. 

  • What are the four phases of a migraine?

    Migraine headaches go through four phases: 

    • Prodrome can last three hours to several days. During this phase, you may experience problems concentrating, irritability, nausea, appetite changes, and muscle stiffness. 
    • Aura can last five minutes to an hour. You may see flashing dots or lights, numbness or tingling skin, tinnitus, tiredness, and a tender scalp. Most people who have migraines do not experience aura.
    • Headache from migraine can last four to 72 hours with classic migraine symptoms.
    • Postdrome is also described as a migraine hangover. Difficulty concentrating, depression, fatigue, and confusion are common symptoms. Some people may experience euphoria during this phase. 
  • What does a cluster headache feel like?

    Cluster headache pain has been described as intense burning, piercing, or stabbing pain centered behind one eye and radiating to the forehead, temple, nose, and gums. Cluster headaches usually last 30 to 45 minutes and can recur up to eight times a day for weeks or months.

3 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.
  1. Carbaat PAT. Headache: classification and diagnosis. NTvT. 2016;123(11):539-544. doi. 10.5177/ntvt.2016.11.16122. Published November, 2016.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Migraine headaches.

  3. Cleveland Clinic. Cluster headaches.

Additional Reading

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.