You’ve probably had a headache before. Almost half of us get headaches every year. The good news is that most headaches are harmless and not dangerous. However, about 10% of headaches are a sign of a serious medical condition that requires immediate attention.
So how do you tell the difference between a normal headache and a dangerous one? It’s not easy. Read on to learn about common causes of severe headaches and when to seek emergency medical attention.
Causes of severe headache
Almost all types of headaches activate the same pain receptors. This makes it difficult to know if your headache is a symptom of a serious illness. The most serious causes of headaches are:
Hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke. A hemorrhagic stroke occurs when a blood vessel in the brain ruptures and bleeds. How to recognize the symptoms of a stroke.
Transient ischemic attack (TIA). The symptoms of a TIA, also known as a mini stroke, are milder and do not last as long as a typical stroke.
Aneurysm. Bulging or balloon-shaped blood vessels in the brain.
Meningitis. A bacterial or viral infection that causes swelling in the protective lining of the brain.
Brain tumor. A “primary” brain tumor starts in the brain and may or may not be cancerous.
When to seek medical help for a headache
If you have a headache without a history of similar headaches, here are seven signs it could be dangerous and requires immediate medical evaluation.
It appears suddenly (the maximum pain is less than five minutes).
This is the worst headache of your life.
You take blood thinners.
You have problems with your immune system, such as diabetes or HIV, or you are taking steroids or chemotherapy.
You may experience numbness in your hands and feet, weakness, slurred speech, seizures, and other neurological symptoms.
Pain in the back of the head or neck.
You are over 50 years old.
We can often rule out serious conditions without extensive testing. However, sometimes a CT scan (imaging) or spinal tap may be necessary, depending on your symptoms and medical history.