So you have a killer headache, but you don't know what to do about it. It can be tricky to know when to push through the pain, and when to actually worry about it, since headaches can be common, and often don't mean anything at all. But there are certain headache red flags that do tend to mean something, and are worth paying attention to.
When you think about it, headaches are pretty strange. The pain seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and it can often seem to affect your whole body. Specifically, a headache is defined as pain in the head and neck area. That seems sort of obvious, but here's something that is a little more bizarre: A headache is never actually caused by your brain, because your brain isn't pain-sensitive. Rather, a headache comes from the sensitivity of blood vessels or muscles in your head and neck. So when your head starts to kill, it's often due to poor blood circulation or muscle spasms, or even a lack of water arriving to that area of the body — hello, dehydration.
With that in mind, here are the headache red flags that might be easily missed, but could mean you have bigger problems that won't easily be solved by a tall glass of water and some ibuprofen.
Plenty of totally benign headaches can occur in an unbalanced way, meaning that they present themselves on only one side of your head. But if you have a headache that's predominantly on the left or right side of your head, it could also be an indicator that something more serious is happening.
You might be dealing with neurological nerve irritation or inflammation of the blood cells in your head. Or it could just be the result of a change in exercise, or severe dehydration. Again, your doctor is the only one who can determine what it is exactly that you're experiencing.
If you're literally unable to leave bed because your headache is so bad, it's pretty likely that you're having a migraine. Migraines can lead to complete disability, and they can often blind you and even take away your senses.
The best way to deal with migraines is to spot them before they arrive so that you can take the right medication, so keeping track of your headaches (when they happen, what you've eaten, etc.) is a good way to prepare for that.
If your headache lasts for multiple days, it's probably a migraine. Migraines can last as long as 72 hours. This doesn't necessarily mean anything is terribly wrong with you, but it can obviously take a massive toll on your life to be in so much pain for that length of time.
Aside from any medication you may be prescribed by a doctor, remember to hydrate as much as possible, and try to minimize your stimulation — meaning turn the lights off if you have to, and find somewhere quiet to relax, if you can.
A "thunderclap" headache is one that occurs quickly, lasts for around 60 seconds, and then disappears. This is very uncommon, and it can often be a sign of a much bigger health risk, like bleeding around your brain.
If you feel a "thunderclap" headache, you should go to the hospital ASAP.
If you have a fever accompanying your headache, you should definitely pay attention to it. This might be a potential sign that your brain has an infection, and it may even be an early sign of meningitis. I know that sounds scary, but again, that's why it's crucial to see a doctor ASAP to get to the bottom of your symptoms.