Your headache symptoms can help your doctor determine its cause and the appropriate treatment. Most headaches aren't the result of a serious illness, but some may result from a life-threatening condition requiring emergency care.

Headaches are generally classified by cause:

Primary headaches

A primary headache is caused by overactivity of or problems with pain-sensitive structures in your head. A primary headache isn't a symptom of an underlying disease.

Chemical activity in your brain, the nerves or blood vessels surrounding your skull, or the muscles of your head and neck (or some combination of these factors) can play a role in primary headaches. Some people may also carry genes that make them more likely to develop such headaches.

The most common primary headaches are:

  1. Cluster headache
  2. Migraine
  3. Migraine with aura
  4. Tension headache
  5. Trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia (TAC), such as cluster headache and paroxysmal hemicrania

A few headache patterns also are generally considered types of primary headache, but are less common. These headaches have distinct features, such as an unusual duration or pain associated with a certain activity.

Although generally considered primary, each could be a symptom of an underlying disease. They include:

  1. Chronic daily headaches (for example, chronic migraine, chronic tension-type headache, or hemicranias continua)
  2. Cough headaches
  3. Exercise headaches
  4. Sex headaches

Some primary headaches can be triggered by lifestyle factors, including:

  1. Alcohol, particularly red wine
  2. Certain foods, such as processed meats that contain nitrates
  3. Changes in sleep or lack of sleep
  4. Poor posture
  5. Skipped meals
  6. Stress

Secondary headaches

A secondary headache is a symptom of a disease that can activate the pain-sensitive nerves of the head. Any number of conditions — varying greatly in severity — may cause secondary headaches.

Possible causes of secondary headaches include:

  1. Acute sinusitis (sinus infection)
  2. Arterial tears (carotid or vertebral dissections)
  3. Blood clot (venous thrombosis) within the brain — separate from stroke
  4. Brain aneurysm (a bulge in an artery in your brain)
  5. Brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation) — an abnormal formation of brain blood vessels
  6. Brain tumor
  7. Carbon monoxide poisoning
  8. Chiari malformation (structural problem at the base of your skull)
  9. Concussion
  10. Dehydration
  11. Dental problems
  12. Ear infection (middle ear)
  13. Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
  14. Giant cell arteritis (inflammation of the lining of the arteries)
  15. Glaucoma (acute angle closure glaucoma)
  16. Hangovers
  17. High blood pressure (hypertension)
  18. Influenza (flu) and other febrile (fever) illnesses
  19. Intracranial hematoma
  20. Medications to treat other disorders
  21. Meningitis
  22. Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  23. Overuse of pain medication
  24. Panic attacks and panic disorder
  25. Post-concussion syndrome
  26. Pressure from tight headgear, such as a helmet or goggles
  27. Pseudotumor cerebri
  28. Stroke
  29. Toxoplasmosis
  30. Trigeminal neuralgia (as well as other neuralgias, all involving irritation of certain nerves connecting the face and brain)

Some types of secondary headaches include:

  1. External compression headaches (a result of pressure-causing headgear)
  2. Ice cream headaches (commonly called brain freeze)
  3. Medication overuse headaches (caused by overuse of pain medication)
  4. Sinus headaches (caused by inflammation and congestion in sinus cavities)
  5. Spinal headaches (caused by low pressure or volume of cerebrospinal fluid, possibly the result of spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak, spinal tap or spinal anesthesia)
  6. Thunderclap headaches (a group of disorders that involves sudden, severe headaches with multiple causes)

Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.

Jan. 11, 2018

See also

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  30. Brain aneurysm
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  176. Managing Headaches
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  181. Mayo Clinic Minute: Arteriovenous malformation or AVM
  182. Mayo Clinic Minute Meningitis 101 for college students
  183. Mayo Clinic Minute: Prevent migraines with magnetic stimulation
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  188. Mayo Clinic Minute: Why you need your flu shot now
  189. Mayo Clinic Minute: Will there be a Lyme disease vaccine for humans?
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  192. Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness
  193. Mental health providers: Tips on finding one
  194. Mental illness
  195. Migraine
  196. Migraine medications and antidepressants
  197. Migraine treatment: Can antidepressants help?
  198. Infographic: Migraine Treatments: Botox & Nerve Blocking
  199. Migraines and gastrointestinal problems: Is there a link?
  200. Migraines and Vertigo
  201. Migraines: Are they triggered by weather changes?
  202. Alleviating migraine pain
  203. Mild depression: Are antidepressants effective?
  204. Infographic: Molecular Classification of Gliomas
  205. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
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  208. Mononucleosis and Epstein-Barr: What's the connection?
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  212. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
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  214. Nearsightedness
  215. Nervous breakdown: What does it mean?
  216. Neti pot: Can it clear your nose?
  217. Neti pot solution: Can I make my own?
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