More than 10 million people in the UK get headaches, making them one of the most common health complaints, but most are easily treated.

Most headaches aren’t serious and can be treated with pharmacy remedies and lifestyle changes, such as getting more rest and drinking enough fluids.

Headaches have many different causes but can generally be split into two types:

  • primary headaches – those not due to another underlying health problem
  • secondary headaches – which have a separate cause, such as illness

These are described in more detail below, with links to more information on specific causes of headaches.

Primary headaches

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common, and what we think of as normal everyday headaches.

They feel like a dull ache with constant pressure around the front, top and sides of the head as if a rubber band has been stretched around it.

Stress is one cause, but there are lots of others, including drinking too much alcohol, not getting enough sleep, depression, skipping meals and becoming dehydrated.

Read more about tension headaches.


Migraines are less common. If a headache is recurrent and disabling to the point of stopping you from carrying on with daily life, it may be a migraine.

People describe migraines as a pounding or throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head.

Most people treat their migraines successfully with over-the-counter medication. If they’re severe, however, you may need stronger migraine-specific medication that is only available on prescription from a doctor.

Read more about migraines.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a third type of primary headache. These excruciatingly painful headaches cause an intense pain around one eye. They're rare and are called cluster headaches because they happen in clusters for a month or two at a time around the same time of year.

Pharmacy medications don't ease the symptoms of a cluster headache, but a doctor can prescribe specific treatments to ease the pain.

Read more about cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches

These include headaches that come on after drinking too much alcohol or after a head injury or concussion.

You may also get a headache when you’ve had:

Medication and painkiller headaches

Some headaches are a side effect of taking a particular medication and frequent headaches can also be caused by taking too many painkillers.

Read more about painkiller headaches.

Hormone headaches

Headaches in women are often caused by hormones, and many women notice a link with their periods. The Pill, the menopause and pregnancy are also potential triggers.

Read more about hormone headaches.

Temporomandibular joint disorders

Headaches are one of the symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorders (TJDs). TJDs affect the joint between the lower jaw and the base of the skull.

It has been estimated that approximately 20-30% of the adult population will experience a TJD at some point.

Symptoms usually last for a few months before getting better.

Read more about temporomandibular joint disorders.

Giant cell arteritis (temporal arteritis)

Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a condition in which medium and large arteries, usually in the head and neck, become inflamed. It usually affects adults over 60 years old.

Giant cell arteritis should be regarded as a medical emergency and you should contact your GP immediately if you suddenly develop:

  • a severe headache
  • jaw pain when eating
  • blurred or double vision
  • a sore scalp

Read more about giant cell arteritis.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

A headache is the most common symptom of mild carbon monoxide poisoning. Other symptoms include feeling or being sick, dizziness and stomach pain.

Although carbon monoxide poisoning is unlikely to be the cause of most headaches, it's important to be aware of the warning signs, including:

  • other people in your house, flat or workplace falling ill with similar symptoms
  • your headache disappears when you're away from your home or workplace and returns when you come back
  • black, sooty marks on the front covers of gas fires or on the walls around boilers, stoves or fires
  • your pet also becoming ill

Read more about carbon monoxide poisoning.


Dr Anne MacGregor describes common causes of headaches, the differences between a normal headache and more severe forms such as a migraine, and treatment options.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

When to see a doctor 

If you’ve been getting really bad headaches it’s natural to wonder if there’s something seriously wrong, like a brain tumour. This is extremely rare and the cause is almost always something else.

However, it’s best to see a doctor if:

  • you feel unwell between your headaches
  • your headaches aren’t relieved by pharmacy treatments
  • your headaches are so painful that they’re limiting your ability to get on with life or are causing you to miss work

Pregnancy headaches

Coping with headaches in pregnancy, and what you can safely do to ease them

Page last reviewed: 28/05/2013

Next review due: 28/05/2015