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
  2. Arterial tears (carotid or vertebral dissections)
  3. Blood clot (venous thrombosis) within the brain — separate from stroke
  4. Brain aneurysm
  5. Brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation)
  6. Brain tumor
  7. Carbon monoxide poisoning
  8. Chiari malformation (structural problem at the base of your skull)
  9. Concussion
  10. Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)
  11. Dehydration (when the body doesn't have enough water and other fluids to work as it should)
  12. Dental problems
  13. Ear infection (middle ear)
  14. Encephalitis (brain inflammation)
  15. Giant cell arteritis (inflammation of the lining of the arteries)
  16. Glaucoma (acute angle closure glaucoma)
  17. Hangovers
  18. High blood pressure (hypertension)
  19. Influenza (flu) and other febrile (fever) illnesses
  20. Intracranial hematoma
  21. Medications to treat other disorders
  22. Meningitis
  23. Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  24. Overuse of pain medication
  25. Panic attacks and panic disorder
  26. Persistent post-concussive symptoms (Post-concussion syndrome)
  27. Pressure from tight headgear, such as a helmet or goggles
  28. Pseudotumor cerebri (idiopathic intracranial hypertension)
  29. Stroke
  30. Toxoplasmosis
  31. 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. Ice cream headaches (commonly called brain freeze)
  2. Medication overuse headaches (caused by overuse of pain medication)
  3. Sinus headaches (caused by inflammation and congestion in sinus cavities)
  4. Spinal headaches (caused by low pressure or volume of cerebrospinal fluid, possibly the result of spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid leak, spinal tap or spinal anesthesia)
  5. 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.

From Mayo Clinic to your inbox

Sign up for free and stay up to date on research advancements, health tips, current health topics, and expertise on managing health. Click here for an email preview.

To provide you with the most relevant and helpful information, and understand which information is beneficial, we may combine your email and website usage information with other information we have about you. If you are a Mayo Clinic patient, this could include protected health information. If we combine this information with your protected health information, we will treat all of that information as protected health information and will only use or disclose that information as set forth in our notice of privacy practices. You may opt-out of email communications at any time by clicking on the unsubscribe link in the e-mail.

June 03, 2020

See also

  1. Acromegaly
  2. Acute sinusitis
  3. Acute sinusitis: Do over-the-counter treatments help?
  4. Alcohol intolerance
  5. Amenorrhea
  6. Anemia
  7. Aneurysm Surgery
  8. Antidepressant withdrawal: Is there such a thing?
  9. Antidepressants and alcohol: What's the concern?
  10. Antidepressants and weight gain: What causes it?
  11. Antidepressants: Can they stop working?
  12. Antidepressants for children and teens
  13. Antidepressants: Side effects
  14. Antidepressants: Selecting one that's right for you
  15. Antidepressants: Which cause the fewest sexual side effects?
  16. Aplastic anemia
  17. Arteriovenous malformation
  18. Aspergillosis
  19. Astigmatism
  20. Atypical antidepressants
  21. Autoimmune neurological disorder
  22. Bee sting
  23. Behcet's disease
  24. Bell's palsy
  25. Brain aneurysm
  26. Brain AVM (arteriovenous malformation)
  27. Brain tumor
  28. Brain Tumor
  29. What is a brain tumor? A Mayo Clinic expert explains
  30. Brain tumor FAQs
  31. Brucellosis
  32. Bruxism (teeth grinding)
  33. Bump on the head: When is it a serious head injury?
  34. Carbon monoxide poisoning
  35. Carotid artery disease
  36. Central sleep apnea
  37. Chagas disease
  38. Chiari malformation
  39. Child abuse
  40. Chronic sinusitis
  41. Clinical depression: What does that mean?
  42. Coarctation of the aorta
  43. Cold and flu viruses: How long can they live outside the body?
  44. Cold or allergy: Which is it?
  45. Cold remedies
  46. Cold sore
  47. Cold symptoms: Does drinking milk increase phlegm?
  48. Common cold
  49. Concussion
  50. Concussion in children
  51. Concussion Recovery
  52. Concussion Telemedicine
  53. Convergence insufficiency
  54. Cough headaches
  55. CPAP machines: Tips for avoiding 10 common problems
  56. Craving and chewing ice: A sign of anemia?
  57. CSF leak (Cerebrospinal fluid leak)
  58. Cushing syndrome
  59. Dehydration
  60. Dengue fever
  61. Depression and anxiety: Can I have both?
  62. Depression, anxiety and exercise
  63. What is depression? A Mayo Clinic expert explains.
  64. Depression in women: Understanding the gender gap
  65. Depression (major depressive disorder)
  66. Depression: Supporting a family member or friend
  67. Ear infection (middle ear)
  68. Early HIV symptoms: What are they?
  69. Ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis
  70. Eisenmenger syndrome
  71. Encephalitis
  72. Essential thrombocythemia
  73. Exercise headaches
  74. Eyestrain
  75. Farsightedness
  76. Fever
  77. Fever treatment: Quick guide to treating a fever
  78. Fibromuscular dysplasia
  79. Fibromyalgia
  80. Flu masks
  81. Flu shots
  82. Flu: When to see a doctor?
  83. Flu vaccine: Safe for people with egg allergy?
  84. Galactorrhea
  85. Genital herpes
  86. Genital herpes: Can you get it from a toilet seat?
  87. Giant cell arteritis
  88. Glioblastoma
  89. Glioma
  90. H1N1 flu (swine flu)
  91. Hangovers
  92. Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome
  93. Headaches and stress
  94. Headaches in children
  95. Heat exhaustion
  96. Heatstroke
  97. Hemophilia
  98. High-dose flu vaccines: How are they different from other flu vaccines?
  99. Histoplasmosis
  100. HIV/AIDS
  101. Humidifiers
  102. Hydrocele
  103. Hyperglycemia in diabetes
  104. Hyperparathyroidism
  105. Hyponatremia
  106. Hypoparathyroidism
  107. Impacted wisdom teeth
  108. Influenza (flu)
  109. Intermittent explosive disorder
  110. Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction
  111. Intracranial hematoma
  112. Iron deficiency anemia
  113. Jellyfish stings
  114. Lead poisoning
  115. Legionnaires' disease
  116. Listeria infection
  117. Living with Brain Tumors
  118. Living with Lupus
  119. Long Term Brain Cancer Survivor
  120. Low blood sodium in older adults: A concern?
  121. Lung cancer
  122. Infographic: Lung Cancer
  123. Lung Cancer
  124. Lung nodules: Can they be cancerous?
  125. Lupus
  126. Lyme disease
  127. Malaria
  128. Male depression: Understanding the issues
  129. Managing Headaches
  130. Managing Meningitis
  131. MAOIs and diet: Is it necessary to restrict tyramine?
  132. Marathon and the Heat
  133. Marijuana and depression
  134. Mayo Clinic Minute: Arteriovenous malformation or AVM
  135. Mayo Clinic Minute: Meningitis 101 for college students
  136. Mayo Clinic Minute: Prevent migraines with magnetic stimulation
  137. Mayo Clinic Minute: Weathering migraines
  138. Mayo Clinic Minute: What you should know about bats and rabies
  139. Mayo Clinic Minute: Why getting vaccinated for the flu is doubly important this season
  140. Mayo Clinic Minute: Will there be a Lyme disease vaccine for humans?
  141. Meningioma
  142. Meningitis
  143. Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness
  144. Mental health providers: Tips on finding one
  145. Mental illness
  146. Migraine
  147. What is a migraine? A Mayo Clinic expert explains
  148. Migraine medicines and antidepressants
  149. Migraine FAQs
  150. Migraine treatment: Can antidepressants help?
  151. Migraines and gastrointestinal problems: Is there a link?
  152. Migraines and Vertigo
  153. Migraines: Are they triggered by weather changes?
  154. Alleviating migraine pain
  155. Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
  156. Mononucleosis
  157. Mononucleosis: Can it recur?
  158. Mononucleosis and Epstein-Barr: What's the connection?
  159. Myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein antibody-associated disease (MOGAD)
  160. Myocarditis
  161. Nasal polyps
  162. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
  163. Natural remedies for depression: Are they effective?
  164. Nearsightedness
  165. Nervous breakdown: What does it mean?
  166. Neti pot: Can it clear my nose?
  167. New Test for Preeclampsia
  168. New Way to Fix Aneurysms
  169. Nocturnal panic attacks: What causes them?
  170. He's the bravest kid I've ever seen
  171. Obstructive sleep apnea
  172. Obstructive Sleep Apnea
  173. Occipital nerve stimulation: Effective migraine treatment?
  174. Ocular migraine: When to seek help
  175. Oligodendroglioma
  176. Paget's disease of bone
  177. Pain and depression: Is there a link?
  178. Panic attacks and panic disorder
  179. Parvovirus infection
  180. Persistent post-concussive symptoms (Post-concussion syndrome)
  181. Pheochromocytoma
  182. Pituitary tumors
  183. Plague
  184. Plugged ears: What is the remedy?
  185. Pneumonia
  186. Polio
  187. Polycystic kidney disease
  188. Polycythemia vera
  189. Polymorphous light eruption
  190. Post COVID syndrome
  191. Postpartum preeclampsia
  192. Preeclampsia
  193. Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
  194. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
  195. Presbyopia
  196. Prolactinoma
  197. Pseudotumor cerebri (idiopathic intracranial hypertension)
  198. Pulmonary edema
  199. Punk Guitarist Survives Brain Tumor
  200. Rabies
  201. Radiation sickness
  202. Recurrent breast cancer
  203. Recurring strep throat: When is tonsillectomy useful?
  204. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)
  205. Rhabdomyolysis
  206. Rubella
  207. Salmonella infection
  208. Scarlet fever
  209. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
  210. Self-care for the flu
  211. Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
  212. Serotonin syndrome
  213. Shingles
  214. Shingles and alcohol
  215. Shingles vaccine: Can I transmit the vaccine virus to others?
  216. Shingles vaccine: Should I get it?
  217. Sinus infection and toothache: Any connection?
  218. Sleep apnea
  219. Smallpox
  220. Staph infections
  221. Strep throat
  222. Strep throat in young children: A common diagnosis?
  223. Stroke
  224. What is a stroke? A Mayo Clinic expert explains
  225. Strokes FAQ Neurologist Robert D. Brown, Jr. M.D., M.P.H., answers the most frequently asked questions about strokes.
  226. Stroke rehabilitation
  227. Sun damage
  228. Sunburn
  229. Super Survivor Conquers Cancer
  230. Takayasu's arteritis
  231. Teen depression
  232. Tension headache
  233. Relieving tension-type headaches
  234. Thermometers: Understand the options
  235. Thrombocytosis
  236. Thunderclap headaches
  237. TMJ disorders
  238. Tonic-clonic (grand mal) seizure
  239. Tonsillitis
  240. Toxic shock syndrome
  241. Traumatic brain injury
  242. Treatment of parathyroid disease at Mayo Clinic
  243. Treatment-resistant depression
  244. Trichinosis
  245. Tricyclic antidepressants and tetracyclic antidepressants
  246. Typhoid fever
  247. Typing with Brain Waves
  248. Valley fever
  249. Vicks VapoRub: An effective nasal decongestant?
  250. Video: 3 things you didn't know about cold sores
  251. CPAP: How it works
  252. Obstructive sleep apnea: What happens?
  253. Vitamin B-12 and depression
  254. Walking pneumonia
  255. Warm-mist versus cool-mist humidifier: Which is better for a cold?
  256. West Nile virus
  257. What's the difference between H1N1 flu and influenza A?
  258. Which CPAP masks are best for you?
  259. Whiplash
  260. Wisdom teeth removal: When is it necessary?
  261. Do zinc supplements shorten colds?