Doctors usually treat headaches with over-the-counter (OTC) medications or prescription treatments. They may also recommend preventive and alternative remedies for more severe cases.

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Headaches can occur from time to time, and their symptoms may vary from mild to severe. A person may experience tension or migraine headaches.

While someone can usually treat headaches with OTC pain relievers, more severe headaches or repeated attacks may require prescription medication.

This article looks at the OTC and prescription medications for headaches, the recommended dosage, other uses, precautions, and side effects.

We also look at preventive options, alternative treatments, and home remedies.

OTC medications include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These drugs relieve symptoms, such as fever and pain, that people may experience with headaches.

The following drugs and their brand names are available:

Ibruprofen can relieve headaches and is available in the following forms:

  • tablets
  • capsules
  • granules to add to water
  • a topical gel or mousse to apply to the affected area

A 2015 research study examined the benefits of ibuprofen in people with frequent tension-type headaches.

The researchers concluded that those with acute headaches with moderate or severe initial pain who took ibuprofen had up to 2 hours of relief.

Additionally, Ibuprofen also helps with inflammation symptoms such as arthritis and joint pain.

Dosage

People taking ibuprofen in tablets or capsule form usually contain between 200 and 600 milligrams (mg).

The recommended dose for adults is:

  • one or two 200-mg tablets or capsules three times a day, with 6 hours between doses
  • one sachet of granules two or three times a day or up to four times in severe cases
  • massaging with topical ibuprofen gel three or four times a day, at 4-hour intervals

A doctor may recommend slow-release tablets or capsules of up to 800 mg if a person has severe headaches.

Learn more about ibuprofen doses.

Precautions

When using ibuprofen topically, people should avoid contact with:

  • eyes
  • inflamed or broken skin
  • mouth or other internal organs

Doctors do not usually recommend a pregnant person take ibuprofen to treat headaches. However, someone who is breastfeeding can take this medication for headaches.

Doctors will not prescribe ibuprofen for children under 3 months or if they weigh under 5 kilograms.

Potential side effects

The most common side effects of ibuprofen include:

Additionally, if a person applies ibuprofen to their skin, it may make it more sensitive to sunlight.

People should speak with a doctor or pharmacist if they experience any of the above symptoms.

Acetaminophen can relieve mild to moderate headache pain.

This drug is a class of medications that doctors call analgesics, which relieve pain, or antipyretics, which reduce fever.

It comes in the following forms:

  • tablet, in hard chewable, dissolvable, or extended-release forms
  • capsule
  • liquid

Dosage

The recommended dose for adults is one or two 500-mg tablets up to four times in 24 hours. A person should leave at least 4 hours between doses.

Paracetamol for children is available as tablets, syrup, or suppository from the age of 3 months.

Paracetamol in dosages of 1,000 mg may help a person with moderate to severe pain from frequent tension headaches become pain-free for 2 hours.

Potential side effects

Generally, this medication will cause side effects. Some more serious side effects may include:

People should speak with their doctor if they have any problems while taking this medication.

Aspirin can treat and relieve pains and aches in the head. This medication can come in tablets or suppositories, which doctors insert into the rectum.

Learn more about aspirins specifically for migraine.

Dosage

The usual dose for aspirin is one or two 300-mg tablets every 4–6 hours.

Aspirin suppositories come in two strengths: 150 or 300 mg, ranging from three to six 150-mg suppositories, which a person should administer every 4 hours, to one to three 300-mg suppositories, which someone should administer every 4 hours.

Precautions

Doctors may prescribe low doses during pregnancy.

Parents or caregivers and breastfeeding people should not give children under 16 aspirin unless on the advice of a doctor. This is due to the risk of them developing a condition called Reye’s syndrome.

Potential side effects

The most common side effects of aspirin are indigestion and bleeding more easily.

If someone experiences any other unusual symptoms, they should consult medical attention.

Naproxen sodium, which doctors classify as an NSAID, can treat and relieve head pain. It can come in the following forms:

  • tablet
  • liquid
  • capsule
  • gel

Dosage

People usually take nonprescription naproxen every 8–12 hours as necessary. A doctor will consider a child’s weight to determine the right naproxen dose.

Precautions

Doctors do not recommend naproxen to people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or trying to conceive.

Potential side effects

The most common side effects of naproxen include:

A person should speak with a doctor or pharmacist if the side effects do not improve or worsen.

There are certain risks to consider before taking NSAIDs. A person may need to consult a doctor before taking NSAIDs if they:

With people taking aspirin, there are also risks if a person has:

If nonprescription drugs do not treat headaches and additional symptoms, a doctor may prescribe the following types of prescription pain relievers:

  • triptans, such as sumatriptan — doctors prescribe this oral tablet to relieve headache symptoms
  • prescription naproxen
  • etodolac (Lodine)
  • oxaprozin (Daypro)
  • indomethacin (Indocin)
  • nabumetone (Relafen)
  • diclofenac (Cataflam)

Doctors will determine the specific dosage for each medication when they provide the prescription. They will also highlight any important precautions or side effects of the above drugs.

Sumatriptan potential side effects

The drug sumatriptan has specific side effects associated with the tablet form. These side effects include:

People should speak with a doctor to discuss any concerns regarding side effects or other symptoms.

Opioid medications

Doctors may also prescribe opioids or narcotics when other OTC pain relievers do not work. These medications help treat persistent, moderate to severe headaches.

Medical professionals use them specifically as an abortive treatment for migraine headaches to stop symptoms as they start.

Examples of opioid medications include:

Opioids can have serious side effects and risks, including overdose and addiction.

They may also result in withdrawal symptoms if people do not take or stop taking them correctly.

Learn more about how opioids affect the brain.

Medical professionals may also recommend certain preventive medications for headaches.

Antidepressants

Doctors mostly use tricyclic antidepressants to prevent migraine headaches. These drugs include amitriptyline and nortriptyline.

Other antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which can decrease the number of tension headaches a person has.

Potential side effects

Research from 2020 demonstrated that people taking antidepressants might experience the following side effects:

People should speak with a doctor if they are experiencing mild or serious side effects affecting their quality of life.

Read more about the specific side effects.

Muscle relaxants

These medications relieve muscle tension and stiffness that may result in headaches.

Tizanidine (Zanaflex) is a type of muscle relaxant that doctors prescribe for tension headaches.

Potential side effects

Tizanidine may cause side effects, including:

  • digestive issues:
    • constipation
    • diarrhea
    • stomach pain
    • vomiting
    • heartburn
  • skin issues, such as rash
  • tingling or numbness sensation in:
    • arms
    • legs
    • hands
    • feet
  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • weakness
  • nervousness
  • depression
  • dry mouth
  • muscle spasms
  • back pain

People should contact a doctor if they experience any of the above side effects when taking these medications.

There are some recommendations that people can try over time to help ease headaches, including:

  • reducing stress where possible and trying relaxation techniques such as meditation
  • getting enough quality sleep
  • regularly performing aerobic exercises
  • eating a regularly scheduled and balanced diet that avoids food triggers

There are also other alternatives to treat a headache, including:

Find more home care techniques for headaches.

People may experience headache symptoms from time to time. These headaches can vary from moderate to severe in intensity.

A person usually takes OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, to treat headaches. However, in more severe or repeated cases, doctors will prescribe pain relief medication at higher doses.

People need to discuss any potential precautions or side effects of these medications before starting a course of treatment in the short or long term.