An afternoon headache is no different than other types of headache. Any headache can hit in the afternoon.
However, people who regularly experience headaches in the afternoon may be doing something earlier in the day that triggers headaches a few hours later.
In this article, we examine the most common causes of an afternoon headache, as well as how to treat them and when to see a doctor.
Some people experience dehydration headaches in the afternoon. Dehydration headaches can happen after a person has a long meeting without water, skips their lunch break, or drinks a lot of coffee but no water.
When a person experiences dehydration, they may also have other symptoms, such as:
- dry mouth, lips, and throat
- dark urine or infrequent urination
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They happen when the muscles in the neck, shoulders, or jaw are tense, which causes pain that radiates to the head.
Tension headaches tend to come on slowly and get progressively worse over several hours. A person may notice this type of headache after spending several hours in the car, at the computer, or in an uncomfortable position.
A person with a tension headache may notice that the muscles in their neck or shoulders feel tense. They may also find that massaging these muscles either eases the headache or makes it worse.
Tension headaches are not dangerous, but they can last for hours or days. Stretching the head, neck, and shoulders or taking frequent screen breaks and practicing deep breathing may help.
A migraine is a type of neurological headache. Changes in nerve pathways, neurotransmitters, and other brain chemicals may trigger a migraine.
Some people experience visual disturbances, sensitivity to light, and unusual sensations in the body with a migraine. In some cases, people feel nauseated and may vomit.
A migraine can happen at any time of the day. Certain smells, sights, sounds, or foods can trigger migraines in some individuals.
People who experience migraine headaches at the same time each day should log their symptoms and activities to help identify potential triggers.
Caffeine can be a headache trigger for some people. It may also contribute to dehydration, potentially intensifying a dehydration headache. For others, caffeine may prevent or ease symptoms of headaches.
People who regularly consume caffeine may experience caffeine withdrawal headaches if they cut back on caffeine or miss a routine morning or afternoon cup of coffee.
Caffeine withdrawal headaches often occur in the afternoon when the body notices that it has not received its usual dose of caffeine.
Some people get headaches when they are hungry due to a drop in blood sugar levels.
A person experiencing a hunger headache may also feel tired, shaky, or dizzy. Sometimes, people with hunger headaches can faint.
Alcohol can be a headache trigger. People who have an alcoholic drink in the afternoon may notice that a headache soon follows.
People who have cluster headaches — a type of intense headache that usually affects the front of the head — may experience pain after drinking alcohol.
Individuals with alcohol use disorder who quit drinking commonly experience headaches for days or weeks afterward as the body goes through withdrawal. People who typically drank in the afternoon may find that the pain is worse around this time of day when the body expects to get a dose of alcohol but does not.
A person with a headache due to high blood pressure might have no other symptoms, or they might see spots, have flushed skin, or feel dizzy.
High blood pressure that causes a headache is always a medical emergency, but it is particularly dangerous for pregnant women. If blood pressure remains at 180/120 mm Hg or higher, then a person should call a doctor or go to the emergency room.
Uncorrected vision problems, eyestrain from staring at a computer for long periods, and muscle imbalances in the face or neck may cause headaches from eyestrain.
Eyestrain headaches are an uncommon type of headache that causes pain in the front of the head. A person may feel exhausted or notice that the pain gets worse when they spend several hours at a computer.
Wearing glasses or contacts often helps eyestrain headaches. Some people also find relief from performing eye exercises, taking frequent breaks, or wearing special glasses that reduce the strain of blue light.
Allergies can cause painful pressure in the head and face. A person with an allergy may:
- sneeze a lot
- feel distracted or fatigued
- notice that their eyes are itchy
- feel as though they are getting sick
Allergies typically affect a person whenever they get exposure to an allergen. The pain is rarely limited to a specific time of day. However, it is possible to experience afternoon allergy headaches when the allergen is present during the afternoon. For instance, a person may develop a headache following a lunchtime walk outside or an afternoon meeting in which someone was wearing heavy perfume.
Headaches that occur as a result of serious health issues, such as stroke or aneurysm, can appear in the afternoon. However, unlike other types of headache, they tend not to go away and then come back.
A person who experiences an afternoon headache should not assume that the time of day itself is the trigger. Severe and life threatening headaches can appear at any time of day.
Some signs that a headache is an emergency include:
- changes in vision or pain in the eye
- an intense headache that differs significantly from a person's usual headache pattern
- a headache that is severe, comes on suddenly, and does not improve with strategies such as massage, water, or darkness
- memory or personality changes during the headache
- loss of consciousness
- a sudden popping sound in the head
- a headache following a car accident or blow to the head
- a very stiff neck with signs of infection, such as a high fever or muscle pain
The type of treatment for headaches depends on their cause. Managing a headache is usually as simple as removing the trigger.
Some simple lifestyle strategies that may reduce the likelihood of getting a headache include:
- taking frequent breaks at work
- avoiding sitting in hunched or strained positions
- stretching and moving around as often as possible
- drinking plenty of water during the day
- eating regular, healthful meals
- avoiding headache triggers, such as alcohol
- having regular eye exams
- wearing prescription lenses that an eye doctor has prescribed, if applicable
People who find that caffeine relieves a headache can usually avoid this symptom by drinking some caffeine early in the day. The body goes through withdrawal when there is a disruption to its usual schedule.
Migraines can be more challenging to treat, but a combination of medication and lifestyle changes can often help.
Blood pressure-induced headaches may require lifestyle changes, blood pressure medication, or other treatment.
When something more serious, such as a stroke or aneurysm, causes a headache, a person needs emergency care.
A person should seek emergency care for symptoms of dangerous headaches, such as:
- high blood pressure
- unbearable pain
- a sudden intense headache
- a headache following an injury
People who experience chronic headaches should discuss their symptoms with a doctor if:
- there is no apparent trigger for the pain
- lifestyle changes do not help
- the headaches get steadily worse with time
- the headache pattern changes
Headaches can be bothersome and unpleasant, even when they do not signal a serious health problem.
Chronic headaches can make it difficult to work, enjoy hobbies, or even perform simple daily tasks. However, most headaches are treatable, and many are preventable.
A person who experiences frequent headaches should log all episodes to understand their pattern better and then see a doctor to discuss potential causes and management strategies.