This Is When You Should Worry About Headaches

According to the Cleveland Clinic, most people experience many headaches throughout their lifetime. Headaches can range from mild to severe and fall under two main categories: primary and secondary headaches. Primary headaches occur without pre-existing medical conditions. Common types of primary headaches include sinus, cluster, tension, and migraines. Secondary headaches are linked to other health conditions, such as a head injury or trauma, medication overuse, hypertension, and sinus congestion. When should you worry about headaches?

While unpleasant and possibly temporarily debilitating, primary headaches presenting typical symptoms happen to everyone at one time or another. A 2022 analysis of 357 publications featured in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that 52% of the world's population has experienced a headache disorder. Additionally, 15.8% worldwide report having headaches daily, and almost half of the adult population has had a headache at least once in the past year, according to the World Health Organization.

As common as headaches and headache disorders are — with an estimated 98% of all headaches considered primary — secondary headaches pose a serious risk and can be life-threatening, according to a 2012 study published in the British Journal of Pain.

Secondary headaches could signal a serious medical condition

Neurologist Fayyaz Ahmed, the author of the 2012 study published in the British Journal of Pain, explains secondary headaches encompass a group of headache disorders that are uncommon, but highly dangerous if left untreated. Secondary headaches are caused by other medical issues and can indicate severe and undiagnosed medical conditions. Conditions could include bleeding in the brain, brain tumors, blood clots in the brain, meningitis, or inflammation of arteries in the head (giant cell arteritis).

Cedars-Sinai warns young women are particularly susceptible to blood clots, especially if they smoke or take birth control, as well as after childbirth. Recurrent early morning headaches, nausea, and vision changes could signal a blood clot in the brain. People over 50 who experience sweats, fever, changes in vision, neck or shoulder pain, and scalp tenderness with headache should get checked for giant cell arteritis, says The Best Practice Advocacy Centre New Zealand. The National Headache Foundation says headaches accompanied by a fever, stiff neck, drowsiness, and confusion may indicate meningitis or encephalitis. Both are central nervous system disorders and are often treatable with antibiotics if seen immediately.

If you or someone in your household is experiencing new headaches with any of these symptoms, you should talk to your healthcare provider immediately.