There are more than 150 different types of headaches. Some of the types include migraine, tension-type, cluster, sinus, and hypnic headaches.

While headaches can sometimes be painful and debilitating, a person can treat most of them with simple pain medications. However, repeated attacks or certain types of headaches could indicate an underlying health condition.

Headaches are often divided into two main categories: primary and secondary.

A primary headache is not due to another condition. In contrast, a secondary headache has a separate underlying cause, such as a head injury or sudden caffeine withdrawal.

This article explores eleven of the most common types of headaches, along with their causes, treatment, prevention, and when to speak with a doctor.

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Headaches are a common issue. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that headache disorders affect around 40% of the global population. Headaches are among the top three most common neurological conditions among all age groups.

A headache with migraine often involves intense throbbing pain on one side of the head.

A person may experience a heightened sensitivity to light, sound, and smell. Nausea and vomiting are also common.

Around 25% of people with migraine experience an aura before or during the headache. These are visual and sensory disturbances that typically last 5–60 minutes and include:

  • seeing zig-zagging lines, flickering lights, or spots
  • partial loss of vision
  • numbness
  • tingling
  • muscle weakness
  • difficulty speaking or finding words

Be aware that aura symptoms could also indicate stroke or meningitis. Anyone experiencing these for the first time should seek immediate medical attention.

Migraine headaches tend to be recurrent, and each episode can last from a few hours to several days. For many, it is a lifelong condition.

Health experts do not fully understand the exact causes of migraine. However, it often runs in families and is more common in people with certain preexisting conditions, such as depression and epilepsy.

Triggers of migraine could include:

  • stress
  • anxiety
  • sleep disruption
  • hormonal changes
  • skipping meals
  • dehydration
  • some foods and medications
  • bright lights and loud noise


Treatment will depend on various factors, including how severe the symptoms are, how often they occur, and whether the person experiences nausea and vomiting.

Treatment options include:

Neurostimulation techniques, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), may also help.

A person can also ease migraine episodes by:

  • resting in a dark, quiet place
  • placing an ice pack or a cold cloth on the forehead
  • drinking water

People with chronic migraine should speak with a healthcare professional about preventive treatment. They may diagnose chronic migraine if a person has an episode on more than 15 days per month or if symptoms occur on at least 8 days a month for 3 months.

Drug options for migraine prevention include:

Other management choices to consider are dietary changes, stress management, and acupuncture.

Learn more about managing migraine at home.

Tension-type headaches affect most people at some time. They are the most common type of primary headaches. Research states that around 78% of adults will experience a tension-type headache at some point.

They present as a dull, constant pain on both sides of the head. Other symptoms can include:

  • tenderness of the face, head, neck, and shoulders
  • a feeling of pressure behind the eyes
  • sensitivity to light and sound

These headaches can last from 30 minutes up to several days.

The exact causes of tension headaches are unclear. However, stress, anxiety, and depression are common triggers. Other potential triggers include:


Over-the-counter (OTC) painkillers, such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and aspirin, are usually very effective in stopping or reducing pain. Individuals experiencing headaches for more than 15 days per month should consult a healthcare professional, as this may indicate chronic headaches.

Lifestyle changes and some treatments may help prevent tension headaches. These can include:

  • getting enough sleep
  • regular exercise and stretching
  • improving sitting and standing posture
  • having an eye test
  • management of stress, anxiety, or depression
  • acupuncture

Learn more about tension-type headaches.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Cluster headaches are severe and recurrent headaches. They are relatively uncommon affecting 1 in 1000 adults, and are six times more likely to affect males than females.

People with cluster headaches describe an intense burning or piercing pain behind or around one eye.

Other symptoms can include:

Cluster headaches usually come on suddenly and without warning and last between 15 minutes and 3 hours. People can experience up to eight attacks a day.

These attacks tend to occur in daily clusters and can persist for weeks or months. They also tend to start at consistent times, often a couple of hours after falling asleep at night.

Any person experiencing these symptoms, which can sometimes resemble hay fever, should consult their healthcare professional.

The cause of cluster headaches is unclear, but they are more likely to occur in people who smoke. People should also avoid alcohol during attack periods.


Treatment aims to reduce the severity and frequency of the attacks. Options include:

Deep-brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation also show promise in treating cluster headaches that do not respond to medication.

Learn more about cluster headaches.

Exertional headaches are due to strenuous physical exercise, with the following triggers:

  • running
  • jumping
  • weightlifting
  • sexual intercourse
  • bouts of coughing or sneezing

These headaches are usually very short-lived but can sometimes last up to 2 days. They present as throbbing pain throughout the head and are more common in those with a family history of migraine.

Individuals experiencing exertional headaches for the first time should speak with a healthcare professional as they could be a sign of something more serious.


Treatment for exertional headaches includes using:

  • OTC pain relief
  • beta-blockers, such as propranolol
  • indomethacin

Sometimes, exertional headaches may result from cardiovascular issues. If so, a healthcare professional may recommend tests to check a person’s cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health.

Learn more about exertional headaches.

A hypnic headache is a rare condition that usually begins when people are in their 50s. However, it can start sooner. People also refer to them as “alarm clock” headaches, and they wake individuals during the night.

A hypnic headache consists of mild-to-moderate throbbing pain, usually on both sides of the head. It can last up to 3 hours, while other symptoms may include nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.

People can experience several attacks each week. The cause of hypnic headaches is not clear, and there are no known triggers.

Although hypnic headaches are generally harmless, an older adult who experiences any unusual headaches for the first time should seek medical advice. A healthcare professional may wish to rule out migraine and cluster headaches.


Treatment options for hypnic headaches include:

Learn more about hypnic headaches.

A medication-overuse headache (MOH) — sometimes known as a rebound headache — is a common type of secondary headache. They occur in around 1-2% of the general population. MOH headaches generally occur in people who have migraine or tension-type headaches.

MOH headaches typically happen first thing in the morning when a person wakes up. The location and pain vary from person to person. They may also experience nausea, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

These headaches are the result of regularly taking medication for headache disorders. However, a person may take them more often, or take more of them, because their pain is not responding.

A doctor may diagnose MOH if a person has a headache disorder and has also taken pain relief medication at least 15 days in a month.

Drugs that can cause MOH when they wear off include:

  • opioids
  • acetaminophen
  • triptans, such as sumatriptan
  • NSAIDs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen


The only treatment for MOH is to stop taking the medication causing the headaches. However, anyone stopping medication should only do so under the supervision of a healthcare professional. They can help devise a plan and may prescribe alternative medications to ease the withdrawal process.

After stopping the drug, a person is likely to experience:

  • worsened headaches
  • nausea and vomiting
  • increased heart rate
  • low blood pressure
  • sleep disturbance
  • restlessness, anxiety, and nervousness

A healthcare professional may prescribe medication, such as antiemetics, to help relieve these symptoms to manage nausea and vomiting. The symptoms usually last for 2–10 days but can persist for up to 4 weeks.

A healthcare professional will advise on suitable pain relief medication to use after resolving an MOH.

The following steps can help prevent MOH:

  • avoiding the use of codeine and opioids
  • limiting the use of pain relief medication for headaches
  • using preventive medications for a chronic migraine

Learn more about rebound headaches.

Sinus headaches occur with sinusitis — an inflammation of the sinuses. It usually results from an infection or an allergy.

The symptoms consist of a dull, throbbing ache around the eyes, cheeks, and forehead. The pain may worsen with movement or straining and can sometimes spread to the teeth and jaw.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • facial pressure or pain
  • reduced sense of smell
  • nasal discharge
  • a blocked nose
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • ear pain
  • bad breath
  • cough
  • dental pain
  • a general feeling of being unwell

Sinus headaches are quite rare. If there are no nasal symptoms, a headache of this nature is more likely to be a migraine episode.


Sinusitis usually clears on its own in around 4 weeks.

Treatment options include:

  • rest
  • drinking fluids
  • OTC pain relief
  • nasal decongestants
  • salt water nasal sprays or solutions from the pharmacy
  • antihistamines
  • steroid nasal sprays, available by prescription
  • antibiotics, if there is a bacterial infection

People should speak with a healthcare professional if symptoms do not improve after 3 weeks or become severe.

To diagnose the underlying cause of sinusitis, a healthcare professional may refer an individual to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. In some cases, minor surgery may be necessary to drain the sinuses.

Tips for preventing sinusitis include avoiding smoking and other known triggers or allergens.

Learn more about treating sinus infections.

A high caffeine intake — more than 400 milligrams (mg), or around 4 cups of coffee per day — can sometimes lead to headaches.

In people consuming more than 200 mg of caffeine daily for over 2 weeks, withdrawal may result in migraine-like headaches.

These typically develop 12–24 hours after stopping caffeine consumption abruptly. They peak at 20–51 hours and can last 2–9 days.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • tiredness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • reduced mood or irritability
  • nausea

The effects of caffeine vary from person to person, but reducing intake could decrease the risk of getting headaches. Limiting caffeine consumption may also help people who have chronic migraine.

Learn more about caffeine withdrawal headaches.

Sometimes, a person develops a headache immediately or soon after a head injury.

OTC pain relief often resolves this. However, if symptoms are severe or worsen over time, an individual should seek immediate medical attention.

Always call an ambulance for a serious head injury or if the following symptoms occur after a head injury:

  • unconsciousness
  • seizures
  • vomiting
  • memory loss
  • confusion
  • vision or hearing problems

Post-traumatic headaches can also develop months after the original head injury, making them difficult to diagnose. They can sometimes occur daily and persist for up to 12 months.

Even a small blow to the head can result in a traumatic brain injury.

Learn more about head injuries.

Headaches are often due to changes in hormone levels. Migraine may occur around menstruation from changes in estrogen levels.

Hormone-related headaches often develop 2 days before or 3 days after a period begins or during ovulation. Symptoms are similar to migraine without aura, but they can last longer.

Hormone-related headaches can also result from:


Treatment for a menstrual headache is the same as the treatment for migraine without aura. Healthcare professionals can advise about possible preventive measures, such as:

  • hormonal therapy
  • taking a triptan or NSAID around the time of periods
  • alternative oral birth control plans, such as omitting the pill-free break
  • hormone replacement therapy for those undergoing menopause

Learn about menstrual migraine.

Consuming excessive alcohol can lead to a throbbing headache the following day or even later that day. These migraine-like headaches usually occur on both sides of the head and can worsen from movement.

Someone with a hangover headache may also experience nausea and sensitivity to light.


There are no cures for hangovers, but it is possible to relieve symptoms by drinking plenty of water and eating sugary foods. OTC painkillers may help reduce or stop the headache.

Symptoms of hangovers tend to go away within 72 hours.

Ways of reducing the risk of a hangover include:

  • drinking in moderation
  • not drinking on an empty stomach
  • drinking water between alcoholic beverages and before going to bed

Learn more about managing a hangover headache.

Headache and migraine resources

To discover more evidence-based information and resources for headaches and migraine, visit our dedicated hub.

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Headaches are a common issue, but most people can manage them with OTC pain relief, such as acetaminophen.

However, anyone who experiences severe, persistent, recurrent, or worsening headaches should consult a healthcare professional. An individual should seek immediate medical assistance if they have a headache:

  • that starts suddenly and is extremely painful
  • following a significant blow to the head
  • with confusion or disturbed vision, balance, or speech
  • with numbness or weakness
  • with fever, seizures, or unconsciousness
  • with a stiff neck or rash
  • with persistent vomiting

A parent or caregiver should speak with a healthcare professional as soon as possible if a child has recurring headaches.

Headaches can affect many people. Often, taking OTC pain relief, such as NSAIDs, will resolve them. However, in some cases, headaches may indicate a medical issue.

Cluster, migraine, and medication-overuse headaches are among the types of headaches that may benefit from medical help and possibly prescription medication.

Anyone with concerns about persistent headaches should seek medical advice, as they can sometimes indicate an underlying disorder.

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