You’ve probably had a headache before. Almost half of us get headaches every year. The good news is that most headaches are harmless and not dangerous. However, about 10% of headaches are a symptom of a serious illness that requires immediate attention.
So how can you tell the difference between a normal headache and a serious one? It’s not easy. Read on for common causes of severe headaches and emergency medical care.
Causes of severe headache
Almost all types of headaches activate the same pain receptors. This makes it difficult to know if your headache is a symptom of a serious illness. The most serious causes of headaches are:
Hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds. How to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.
Transient ischemic attack (TIA). The symptoms of a TIA, also known as a mini stroke, are mild and do not last as long as a typical stroke.
Aneurysm. Bulging or balloon-shaped vessels in the brain.
Meningitis. A bacterial or viral infection that causes swelling in the protective lining of the brain.
Brain tumor. “Primary” brain tumors start in the brain and can be cancerous.
When to seek medical help for a headache
If you have a headache and have never had a similar headache, here are seven signs that it could be dangerous and require immediate medical attention.
It appears suddenly (maximum pain is less than five minutes).
This is the worst headache of your life.
You take blood thinners.
Have problems with your immune system, such as diabetes or HIV infection, or are receiving steroids or chemotherapy.
You may experience numbness in your hands and feet, weakness, slurred speech, seizures, and other neurological symptoms.
Pain in the back of the head or neck.
You are over 50 years old.
We can often rule out serious conditions without extensive testing. However, sometimes a CT scan (imaging) or spinal tap may be needed, depending on your symptoms and medical history.