Man pressing the temples of his head because of the pain from a severe headache


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.

You’ve likely had a headache before. Almost half of us get a headache in any given year. The good news is most headaches are not harmful or dangerous. But, about 10 percent of headaches are a sign of a serious health condition and require an emergency evaluation.

So, how can you tell the difference between an ordinary headache and one that's dangerous? It's not easy. Keep reading to learn about common causes of severe headaches and when to seek immediate medical attention.

Causes of severe headaches

Almost all types of headaches activate the same pain receptors. That can make it difficult to know if your headache pain is a sign of a serious condition. The most serious causes of headache pain include:

  • Hemorrhagic (bleeding) stroke. A hemorrhagic stroke happens when a blood vessel in your brain breaks and bleeds. How to recognize signs of a stroke.
  • Transient ischemic attack (TIA). Also called a mini-stroke, TIA symptoms are less severe and don’t last as long as a regular stroke.
  • Aneurysm. A bulge or ballooning blood vessel in the brain.
  • Meningitis. A bacterial or viral infection that causes swelling in the protective lining of your brain.
  • Brain tumor. A “primary” brain tumor begins in the brain and can be cancerous or noncancerous. 

When to seek medical attention for a headache

If you develop a headache with no history of a similar headache, here are seven signs it could be dangerous and require an emergency evaluation:

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

We often can rule out serious conditions without extensive tests. However, sometimes a CT scan (imaging) or a spinal tap may be necessary, depending on your symptoms and medical history.

If you have any concerns about a headache, it is best to get evaluated.

Need emergency care? Find an emergency room near you and check wait times.




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