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Headaches - Topic Overview

Headaches are one of the most common pain-related health problems in both children and adults. You may have a headache along with another minor health problem such as a sore throat, cold, or sinus problem.

The most common types of headaches usually are not serious but may occur again and again.

  • Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and are often caused by stress and emotional strain. Most adults have tension headaches from time to time, and everyone may have different areas of pain camera.gif.
  • Cluster headaches
  • Migraine headaches. Approximately one-third of people who have migraine headaches first began having them as teenagers.

Common causes of headaches include:

  • Alcohol, caffeine, or other drug use or withdrawal.
  • Changes in the levels of chemicals in the body (neurotransmitters).
  • Coughing or sneezing.
  • Dehydration.
  • Dental problems or procedures, such as pain from grinding the teeth or from a root canal.
  • Eating or drinking cold foods and fluids.
  • Emotional stress.
  • Exposure to smoke or fumes from chemicals, including carbon monoxide.
  • Eyestrain.
  • Fever.
  • High altitude. Lower oxygen levels at high altitudes can cause headaches.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Infection in the sinuses camera.gif, such as sinusitis or an abscess.
  • Medical procedures, such as the aftereffects of a lumbar puncture (spinal tap).
  • Medicines. Many medicines can cause headaches.
  • Muscle strain in the neck, upper back, or shoulder muscles.
  • Upper respiratory infections.
  • Premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Although rare, a headache may be a symptom of a serious illness. Other symptoms, such as vomiting, dizziness, or changes in vision, may also be present. The following serious illnesses or injuries can cause headaches.

  • A head injury:
    • Injury to the brain (concussion)
    • Fracture of the skull
    • Bleeding in or around the brain
  • Brain tumor, which causes swelling within the brain
  • Infection in the brain (encephalitis) or of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)
  • Stroke, a problem that occurs when a blood vessel (artery) that supplies blood to the brain bursts or is blocked by a blood clot
  • A rupture of a blood vessel with bleeding in or around the brain (aneurysm)

Check your symptoms to decide if and when you should see a doctor.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: April 17, 2012
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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