Recognizing Dangerous Headaches in Pregnancy

When to Call Your Doctor

Headaches are common during pregnancy and while they're painful, most aren't worrisome. However, changes in hormones, blood volume, and weight that naturally occur during pregnancy can make women more susceptible to a different kind of headache that is a warning sign of more serious problems.

Types of Headaches

Headaches are classified by what causes them and fall into two categories; primary headaches, where the pain is the problem, and secondary headaches, where the pain is caused by another medical problem. About 40 percent of pregnant women report having headaches during pregnancy or postpartum. Most are primary headaches and are less worrisome.

However, research suggests that secondary causes of headaches may be more common among pregnant women than was previously thought. One study found that between 25 percent and 42 percent of pregnant women seeking treatment had a secondary headache,

During the first trimester nausea, vomiting, and dehydration due to morning sickness, as well as low blood sugar and caffeine withdrawal can trigger headaches. During the second and third trimesters, headaches tend to be caused by weight gain, poor posture, lack of sleep, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Common types of headaches during pregnancy include;

Tension headaches: pain that feels like a tight band around your head, pain in neck and shoulders, hunger

Migraines: pain lasting hours, sometimes days, may include blurred vision, light flashes, light sensitivity, nausea, vomiting

Sinus headaches: pain or pressure around the forehead, cheeks and eyes, stuffy nose, congestion

Cluster headaches: pain usually around one eye or side of the head, wakes you up at night, occurs in patterns

Thunderclap headaches: sudden, severe pain that peaks within a minute, lasts for at least five minutes, and can cause numbness, difficulty seeing, speaking, walking

It's important to tell your doctor about any headaches you experience during pregnancy.

Doctors usually recommend conservative measures like cold compresses and rest, but medications such as Tylenol (Acetaminophen) can be used. Be sure to learn more about which medications are safe to use during pregnancy.

pregnancy and dangerous headache warning signs

Verywell / Laura Porter

Headache as Preeclampsia Symptom

When a headache during pregnancy is accompanied by dizziness, blurred vision, or blind spots, it's time to call your obstetrician or healthcare provider.

These could be symptoms of serious complications, such as preeclampsia, a kind of high blood pressure that can occur after a woman has reached her 20th week of pregnancy. The condition can damage other organs like the liver or kidneys and the platelets, cells in the blood that are important in the clotting process.

Besides high blood pressure (hypertension), other symptoms include; abdominal pain, protein in the urine, and swelling, usually in the feet and legs.

One study found that pregnant women with both high blood pressure and a headache were 17 times more likely to suffer severe complications, like preeclampsia.

Some people with preeclampsia develop a headache that resembles a migraine—a throbbing headache with nausea and/or a sensitivity to light or sound. This is another cue to contact your doctor right away, especially if you don't normally get migraines or the pain is different, more intense or longer lasting than the headaches you usually get.

Left untreated, preeclampsia can develop into eclampsia, which includes seizures and possibly coma and blindness. Both conditions are dangerous, possibly even fatal to the mother and baby, and need to be treated urgently. Treatment generally involves delivery of the baby in addition to treating the mother with medications to bring the blood pressure down.

Headaches Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

Doctor Discussion Guide Woman

Red Flag Warning Signs

Other headache red flags include a thunderclap headache, which causes severe pain that comes on suddenly, peaks within one minute and lasts for at least five minutes or longer. (7) Many people describe this as the worst headache of their life.

Additional symptoms include numbness, difficulty seeing, speaking or walking, nausea, vomiting, a high fever and high blood pressure. (7) Contact your doctor immediately because thunderclap headaches and high blood pressure during late pregnancy can be signs of severe medical conditions such as eclampsia and bleeding within the pituitary gland or around the brain.

If you never get headaches and you get one during pregnancy, or the pain you're experiencing is different, more severe or longer lasting than your usual headaches, call your doctor, as this can be a warning sign.

A Word From Verywell

The good news is that most headaches during pregnancy can be easily relieved with simple remedies like rest, relaxation, a cold compress, and eating at regularly scheduled times.

Biofeedback and stress management techniques can also be useful. But it's wise to be aware and call your doctor if your headache is persistent, feels different, or is associated with worrisome symptoms, like neurological problems. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Sandoe CH, Lay C. Secondary headaches during pregnancy: when to worry. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2019;19(6):27.

  2. Robbins MS, Farmakidis C, Dayal AK, Lipton RB. Acute headache diagnosis in pregnant women: a hospital-based study. Neurology. 2015;85(12):1024-1030.

  3. Negro A, Delaruelle Z, Ivanova TA, et al. Headache and pregnancy: a systematic review. J Headache Pain. 2017;18(1):106.

Additional Reading

  • Sandoe CH, Lay C. Secondary headaches during pregnancy: when to worry. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2019;19(6):27.

  • Hamilton KT, Halker Singh RB, Ailani J, Butterfield RJ, Robbins MS. Migraine treatment in pregnancy: an american headache society survey. Headache. 2020;60(10):2594-2596.


  • Negro A, Delaruelle Z, Ivanova TA, et al. Headache and pregnancy: a systematic review. J Headache Pain. 2017;18(1):106.


  • Raffaelli B, Siebert E, Körner J, Liman T, Reuter U, Neeb L. Characteristics and diagnoses of acute headache in pregnant women – a retrospective cross-sectional study. The Journal of Headache and Pain. 2017;18(1):114.


  • Ratcliffe, Stephen, et al, ed. Family Practice Obstetrics, Second Edition. Hanley & Belfus, Inc.: Philadelphia. 2001.

  • Robbins MS, Farmakidis C, Dayal AK, Lipton RB. Acute headache diagnosis in pregnant women: a hospital-based study. Neurology. 2015;85(12):1024-1030.


  • Schoen JC, Campbell RL, Sadosty AT. Headache in pregnancy: an approach to emergency department evaluation and management. West J Emerg Med. 2015;16(2):291-301.


  • Thunderclap headaches. American Migraine Foundation.