Symptoms of a Headache

In This Article

The symptoms of a headache are more than just head pain and depend on the type of headache a person is having. For some people, its those "other" symptoms, like nausea or sensitivity to light, that cause the most discomfort.

Let's investigate the common symptoms of primary headaches—headaches that occur on their own and are not due to an underlying medical condition.

Frequent Symptoms

The symptoms differ for the types of primary headaches: migraine, tension headache, and cluster headache.


These are the most frequent symptoms of a migraine:

  • Throbbing or pulsating head pain, usually on one side of the head, but may be on both
  • Pain is worse with physical activity
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, called photophobia
  • Sensitivity to sound, called phonophobia
  • Premonitory phase that begins up to two days before the migraine and is associated with emotional changes, yawning, urinary frequency, fluid retention, stiff neck, feeling thirsty, or having food cravings
  • Aura symptoms, like vision changes, numbness and tingling, dizziness, confusion, and/or language problems like difficulty finding words
  • Increased sense of smell
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Emotional distress
  • Postdrome phase characterized by fatigue, irritability, or euphoria

Tension Headache

A tension headache often has these symptoms:

  • Aching, tightening or pressure sensation on both sides of the head, starting at the forehead
  • Sense of fullness in the head
  • Head pain lasts 30 minutes to seven days
  • Head pain usually starts at some point during the day, increases slowly, and then remains stable
  • Radiation of pain to neck and/or shoulders
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sensitivity to light or sound, but not both
  • Pain is not worse with physical activity, as in migraines

Cluster Headache

A cluster headache has these symptoms:

  • Severely painful headache usually centered around the eye or temple—often described as piercing, like a knife
  • Headache occurs in short bursts, 45 to 90 minutes
  • Runny nose (on the same side as the head pain)
  • Watery eye (on the same side as the head pain)
  • Swelling of the face (on the same side as the head pain)
  • Swelling of the eyelid (on the same side as the head pain)
  • Facial flushing or sweating
  • Agitated, restless
  • Migraine-like symptoms may occur: nausea, aura, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound

Rare Symptoms

There are rare symptoms associated with migraine subtypes. In these subtypes, the unusual symptoms are the most prominent aspect of the migraine episode:

  • Hemiplegic migraine may show paralysis (usually of one arm). This type has a strong genetic link.
  • Abdominal migraine presents with a stomachache and occurs more often in children than adults.
  • Ophthalmoplegic migraine has symptoms of double vision, blurred vision, a droopy eyelid, or an obvious inability to move one eye.
  • Silent migraine has no headache, but does have a migraine aura.

Complications and Sub-Group Indications

The most common complication of headache are the side effects of headache medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS) can cause stomach pain and gastrointestinal bleeding. Other medications have their own side effects.

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 removing the medication. However, for some types of medication this can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

There are several complications that relate specifically to migraine. These include:

When to See a Doctor or Go to the Hospital

You should make an appointment with your doctor if your headaches are waking you from sleep, get worse in the morning, or last for more than a few days. A change in the pattern, intensity, and frequency of your headaches should also merit a checkup. If you are over age 50 and you have just started getting headaches, see your doctor.

Emergency Attention

There are signs that a headache might need emergency attention. These include:

  • It is your first severe headache or, if you often get headaches, the "worse headache of your life"
  • The headache comes on explosively
  • Signs of a stroke, which include slurred speech, vision changes, problems moving your limbs, confusion, memory loss
  • Fever, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting
  • You have had a head injury
  • The headache comes on after vigorous physical activity

A Word from Verywell

If you have a headache and are unsure about the trigger or diagnosis, be sure to talk with your doctor. You may be able to get better relief and learn how to prevent a recurrence and complications. While a headache may be one of your typical pattern, it could also signal a new medical problem.

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Article Sources

  • American Migraine Foundation. Cluster Headache

  • American Migraine Foundation. Tension-type Headache.

  • MedlinePlus. Headaches—Danger Signs.

  • Buchholz, David & Reich, Stephen G (foreword). Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program For Taking Charge of Your Pain. New York: Workman, 2002.
  • Chowdhury D. Tension type headache. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012 Aug;15(Suppl 1):S83-S88.