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Seven signs of a dangerous headache

Headaches affect almost half of us in the course of a year. The good news is that 90 percent of headaches are "benign." That means they aren't harmful or dangerous to you. The bad news is that 10 percent of headaches are a sign of a serious condition which requires an emergency evaluation.

How do you tell the difference? It's not easy. Almost all types of headaches activate the same type of pain receptors. That can make it difficult for someone at home to know whether their headache pain is a sign of a serious condition. The most serious causes of headaches are hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke, aneurysm, meningitis or a brain tumor. 

If you develop a headache and have no history of similar headaches, here are seven signs that it could be dangerous and require an emergency evaluation.

  • It comes on suddenly (less than five minutes to maximum pain)
  • It is a severe headache (the worst headache of your life)
  • You take a blood thinner
  • You have problems with your immune system (including having diabetes or HIV, or you are being treated with steroids or chemotherapy).
  • You have neurologic symptoms like arm or leg numbness or weakness, slurred speech or seizures.
  • You have pain in the back of the head or pain that travels down your neck
  • You are older than 50.

We often can rule out serious conditions without extensive tests, but depending on your symptoms and medical history, a CT scan or spinal tap may be necessary. If you have any cause for concern about a headache, it is best to be evaluated.


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