When To See Your Doctor for a Bad Headache or Migraine

Sometimes, headache symptoms indicate a serious problem. Be safe.

Woman holding her head
IAN HOOTON/Getty Images

A throbbing, painful headache or a nasty migraine can really ruin your whole day, but in most cases it's not truly dangerous ... just disruptive.

Still, there are times when a headache isn't just a headache — it's a symptom of some other, serious condition ... potentially one that warrants immediate medical attention.

For example, migraines can cause strokes, and these strokes can be fatal. Carbon monoxide poisoning causes a vicious headache, and also can kill you. And certain infections can cause headaches (likely with other symptoms), and can be very dangerous.

So when should you call your doctor, and when should you just reach for the bottle of pain reliever? I've compiled the list below to help you determine how serious your headache might be, and when you should seek medical help for it:

When to Seek Quick or Emergency Medical Care

You should head for the emergency room or call 911 if your headache is accompanied by any of the symptoms of stroke, which include: blurred vision or loss of vision, weakness, slurred speech, confusion or memory loss.

If your headache causes you to lose consciousness or is accompanied by uncontrolled vomiting, you also should seek emergency medical care via 911 or the emergency room.

You should see your doctor immediately or seek urgent care if you don't normally get headaches and you suddenly develop "the worst ever migraine or headache," one that interferes with your activities, or one that keeps getting worse, not better. There are several potential reasons for headaches like this, including some serious ones, and you'll need to get checked out.

A headache that's accompanied by fever, a stiff neck, persistent vomiting and/or diarrhea could mean you have an infection, and you also should see a doctor immediately. The same goes if you've had a head injury and you develop a headache.

Finally, you should seek medical care quickly if you have a migraine that lasts for more than 72 hours with less than a solid four-hour pain-free period, while awake. And, you also should seek quick medical care if you have a headache or migraine attack with unusual and alarming symptoms, whatever those symptoms may be.

When to Make an Appointment with Your Doctor

Some headache or migraine symptoms warrant a visit to your doctor's office, even if they're not an emergency. You should make an appointment to see your doctor if:

The Bottom Line

Most headaches aren't an emergency — they're just annoying. But there are times when headaches and/or unusual migraine symptoms are indications of something that needs immediate medical care.

Some people are reluctant to call their doctors or go to the emergency room because they don't want to get there and find out that nothing out of the ordinary is wrong.

Please, don't be concerned about that. Get medical care if you think you may need it. Be safe.   

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
  • The Migraine Trust. Stroke and Migraine fact sheet. Accessed Nov. 16, 2015.
  • U.S. National Library of Medicine. Headaches - Danger Signs fact sheet. Accessed Nov. 16, 2015.