Few things can stop you in your tracks like a headache. You’re going about your day and then — wham! Your aching head sends you running for the pain reliever and a place to nap.

But not all headaches are the same. Knowing the type of headache you have can help you treat it.


Primary Headaches

Primary headaches include several types of headaches.

Tension Headaches: This most common type of headache causes a mild to medium pain that feels like a tight band around your head. 

Migraine Headaches: The severe pain these headaches bring, usually to one side of your head, can keep you from your daily activities. Migraines often cause nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. There may be warning signs, known as aura, before or during a migraine. Aura can include flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling on one side of your face or in your arm or leg.

Cluster Headaches: These are rare episodes of intense pain, usually in or around one eye. A period of attacks can last from weeks to months. Afterward, they may stop for months or even years. Cluster headaches often keep you from being able to work or handle daily life.

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches are a symptom of another health problem. Some of the possible reasons, such as flu or a sinus infection, are minor. Other causes, such as high blood pressure and blood clots, can be much more serious.

Getting Relief

You can often treat primary headaches like tension headaches and even some migraine headaches by taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. Aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen can be effective, but make sure you take them as directed. In addition, be kind to yourself. Place hot or cold compresses on your neck. Get some rest in a quiet, dark room. Treat yourself to a massage.

Severe migraines or cluster headaches typically require a doctor’s visit.

To relieve secondary headaches, you have to treat the problem that’s causing the pain. For example, if your headache is allergy-related, you might take allergy medicine and a pain reliever. For more serious conditions, such as high blood pressure, you should consult your doctor.

What if you’re not sure what kind of headache you have or how to treat it? Your primary care provider is the best place to start.

“The good news is you don’t have to diagnose what type of headache you have,” says Dr. Derek Robinson, an emergency medicine specialist and Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plan vice president. “Most headaches will go away, but sometimes you may find that the headache lingers for more than a day, disrupts your ability to function, or does not get better with over-the-counter medications. These are good signals that you should reach out to your primary care physician.”

Dr. Robinson points out that some headaches are more serious. These are some of the symptoms that could be a sign you need emergency treatment:

  • Sudden onset of a severe headache.
  • Headache with numbness, weakness, difficulty walking or slurred speech.
  • Headache associated with a head injury, fainting, neck pain or vomiting.

Please keep in mind that this is not a complete list.


The bottom line.

Most headaches will go away on their own or with an over-the-counter pain reliever. But if yours won’t go away or they keep you from doing your daily activities, it may be time to talk to a health care professional. You can learn more about the many different types of headaches by checking The Complete Headache Chart provided by the National Headache Foundation.