Headaches can be uncomfortable to unbearable. Although all headaches are unpleasant, most are not medically serious. There are headaches that may require prompt medical attention.

Serious headache symptoms

If your doctor cannot see you right away, go to the emergency room.

  • Your headache is bad enough to interfere with your ability to function
  • Your headaches are new, and you are more than 50 years old.
  • You may have vision problems and pain when you chew.
  • A sudden, violent headache
  • A headache that worsens over 24 hours
  • A headache with symptoms like trouble speaking, weakness, dizziness, vision problems, confusion, or memory loss
  • A headache with fever, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting
  • A headache after a head injury
  • A severe headache limited to one eye, with redness in the eye

It is also important to see your doctor if your headaches wake you up, they are worse in the morning, they are more frequent or severe than before, they happen often but there is no known cause, or you have a headache that lasts more than a few days.

Headache types

Doctors divide headache into primary and secondary types.

  • A primary headache is a headache that is not caused by another disorder. In other words, it is the disorder. The most common types, migraine and tension headache, are both primary headaches.
  • A secondary headache is caused by another condition, such as head trauma or arthritis of the neck. Many disorders can cause secondary headache. Headaches that may have a serious cause are all secondary headaches.

Tension headache

Tension headache is the most common type of primary headache. Up to three-quarters of people experience a tension headache at some time during their life.

The pain of a tension headache is usually felt on both sides of the head. People with tension headaches describe them as feelings of pressure or tightening. Tension headaches are not usually severe—they are mostly mild or moderate. Unlike migraine, this type of headache does not get worse with moderate physical activity, like walking. A tension headache is not accompanied by nausea, but bright light and sound may aggravate it.

Tension headaches can last for minutes or days; they can occur rarely or frequently. When tension headaches occur frequently, they can coexist with migraine headaches.


Migraine is a common and disabling type of primary headache. It is a biological disorder of the brain and may be hereditary in some cases. Migraines are usually felt on one side of the head and are often moderate or severe. This type of headache is worsened by physical activity. The pain tends to pulsate or throb. Along with excruciating pain, symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound greatly affect a person’s ability to function. About three times as many women as men have migraines. Numerous migraine triggers have been indentified, including hormone fluctuations, specific foods, light, and smoking.

Migraine headaches may last between 4 and 72 hours. Some people experience warning symptoms several hours or a day or two before a migraine attack. These symptoms include fatigue, difficulty concentrating, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light or sound, nausea, blurred vision, yawning and pallor. Some people may also have an aura (visual disturbances, like zigzag lines or flashing lights) just before the migraine starts.

If you experience migraine pain, speak to your doctor about how ASPIRIN® can work for you.