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How to get rid of a headache fast

Headaches happen to us all. Sometimes it’s a dull ache behind the eyes, sometimes it’s a sudden throbbing pain. Sometimes the pain lingers and sometimes it’s only there for a few hours. The good news is, there are steps you can take to prevent and quickly treat a headache.

When your head starts hurting, here’s what to know and what to do to get rid of that pain.

The most common causes of headaches

Before we dive in to what steps to take in the moment when you feel a headache coming on, it’s important to understand the types of headaches and their primary causes. Headaches are classified into two categories: primary headache disorders and secondary headache disorders.

Primary headache disorders include tension-type headaches, migraines and trigeminal autonomic cephalagias such as cluster headaches, among others. According to the World Health Organization, the most common type of primary headache disorder is a tension headache.

Secondary headache disorders are headaches that are usually caused by some other medical condition. These include headaches that are usually caused by overusing certain types of medications for pain, by trauma to the head or by a stroke or bleed in the head, among other causes. The most common type of secondary headache disorder is a medication overuse headache.

What to do when you feel a headache coming on

The steps to take when you start feeling a headache coming on will depend on the type of headache you are experiencing, as treatment will vary by headache type. Secondary headaches require a little more investigation to determine what is causing the headache.

In general, helpful steps to take can include:

  • Take an over-the-counter medication for pain like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
  • Dim the lights.
  • Rest in a quiet place.

It’s also very important to talk to your primary care physician if you’ve been experiencing headaches. Some red flags that suggest a secondary headache disorder and require further medical evaluation include:

  • Fever
  • Night sweats
  • Weight loss or gain
  • History of malignancy or immunosuppression
  • One-sided weakness or numbness
  • Behavior or personality changes
  • Visual disturbances such as double vision or transient vision loss
  • Imbalance

In general, other signs you should seek care include: an intense headache that is sudden in onset and reaches peak intensity in less than one minute, the new onset of headaches before age 5 or after 65 years of age, a change in headache characteristics or pattern in general and in pregnant people.

Lifestyle changes to prevent headaches

Some lifestyle interventions such as dietary changes can help prevent headaches, although the food triggers can be different for each person. Keeping a food diary can help pinpoint if there are any food triggers for you.

Below are a few lifestyle factors that some people find helpful in reducing the frequency of their headaches:

  • Watch your caffeine intake. Although caffeine is present in some medications that treat headaches and can help some people, it is important to avoid its excessive intake as it can promote increase in headache frequency.
  • Eat consistently and avoid skipping meals.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Maintain good sleeping habits and make sure you’re getting 7-9 hours per night.
  • Manage your stress levels. Try tactics like yoga, mindfulness, journaling or exercise.

There are also medications and medical devices that can be used to prevent headaches. These include blood pressure medications, anti-depressants and anti-seizure medications, among others. Your doctor can help determine the best choice for you—whether that’s lifestyle changes, medications or devices, or a combination.

Head aching? Talk to your doctor or find one near you.

About the author

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Dr. Padilla is a neurologist on staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – Temple.

How to get rid of a headache fast