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If you've never had a headache, you're in the minority. Headaches affect almost all of us, with different levels of severity. The two most common types are tension headaches and migraines, affecting about seven million and two million Australians respectively.

What causes headaches? 

Different types of headache are caused by a variety of conditions, which is why it’s important to see a doctor so he or she can suggest the treatment that will work best for you.

Common causes of headaches

Some common causes of headaches include:

  • allergic headaches. These often occur together with a runny nose and sore eyes
  • cluster headaches. These cause severe pain around one eye often with a drooping eyelid, watering eye and nasal congestion. They occur more commonly in males
  • eyestrain headaches. These are caused by uncorrected visual problems and leads to pain and heaviness around the eyes
  • hangover. A hangover headache is usually a throbbing pain on one side of the head along with nausea.
  • hormones. Women can get migraine-like headaches when they ovulate, get their period, and in the years leading up to menopause.
  • “ice-cream” headache. This is a sharp pain in the front of the head immediately after eating or drinking cold food or drink.
  • migraine. This involves severe, one-sided throbbing pain that often occurs with nausea, vomiting, cold hands, sensitivity to sound, light and smells. Some people develop an aura (typically visual disturbances such as bright zigzag lines, flashing lights, difficulty in focusing or blind spots lasting 20-45 minutes) before and during the headache. For more information about migraines, click here.
  • tension. A dull, non-throbbing pain, around both sides of the head, often associated with tightness of the scalp or neck.
  • Temporomandibular Joint Dysfunction (TMJ). This is caused by a misalignment of the jaws and sometimes a clicking sound can be heard when opening the jaw.

Other causes

Some rare, but serious, causes of headache include:

  • bleeding into the brain (burst aneurysm). This causes a sudden, severe onset (‘thunderclap’) of pain. symptoms may also include loss of consciousness, a stiff neck, and double vision
  • brain cancer. Brain cancers cause severe dull headaches that get progressively worse. Most people with brain cancer also have other symptoms such as vomiting, visual disturbances, a weakness in an arm and/or leg, speech problems, personality changes or epileptic fits
  • brain abscess. This is an infection that enters the brain through broken skull-bone with overlying skin damage, or from ear, throat, sinus and lung infections, can cause headaches that can be accompanied by fever and convulsions
  • meningitis. This is an infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, and causes severe headaches along with a stiff neck, vomiting, fever and sensitivity to light.
  • temporal arteritis. This is an inflammation of the blood vessels in the scalp and temple that causes a burning pain, particularly when chewing. It is more common in people aged over 55.

When to see your doctor 

You should always see your doctor to get a correct diagnosis for a new type of headache. Seek urgent medical attention if:

  • you have regular headaches on more than 15 days a month
  • you get a ‘thunderclap’ headache – an intense headache that starts very suddenly
  • your headache gets progressively worse over several weeks
  • your headache gets worse when you change body position
  • you have a headache that is accompanied by fever, nausea and vomiting, a stiff neck, rash, and/or sensitivity to light
  • you have a headache that is associated with nerve symptoms such as weakness, dizziness, sudden loss of balance or falling
  • you experience headaches after a head injury or accident.

Managing your headache 

It’s important to see your GP to get an accurate diagnosis of your headache. This will help in getting the right treatment. But there are also a number of things you can do to manage your headaches:

  • Keep a headache diary, noting what you eat, your hormonal cycle and other environmental factors. This can help you and your doctor diagnose your headache. It can also help identify what triggers your headaches.
  • A healthy lifestyle and stress management can help relieve many headaches. Talk to your doctor about what is appropriate for you.
  • Other measures some people find helpful include lying down in a dark and quiet room, sleeping, or going for a walk.
  • Appropriate non-prescription medicines such as paracetamol and ibuprofen may help when taken as recommended. Your doctor may also prescribe special medicines for treating and/or preventing migraines. Always read the accompanying consumer medicine information and take as prescribed. If you have any questions, ask your doctor or pharmacist.

Further information 

Headache Australia


British Association for the Study of Headache. Guidelines for all healthcare professionals in the diagnosis and management of migraine, tension-type headache, cluster headache, medication-overuse headache. 3rd ed (1st revision). [online] 2010 [Accessed 7 July 2011] Available from:

Headache Australia. Headache management. [online] Crows Nest, NSW: Brain Foundation. c2011 [Accessed 7 July 2011] Available from:

Headache Australia. Headache types. [online] Crows Nest, NSW: Brain Foundation. c2011 [Accessed 7 July 2011] Available from:

Institute for Clinical Systems Improvement (ICSI). Healthcare guidelines: diagnosis and treatment of headache. [online] Bloomington, MN: ICSI. Jan 2011 [Accessed 7 July 2011] Available from:

Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network (SIGN). Diagnosis and management of headache in adults. [online] Edinburgh, Scotland: SIGN. Nov 2008 [Accessed 7 July 2011] Available from: (PDF, 686Kb)

Last published: 30 July 2011

This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

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