Headache and Nausea

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on August 18, 2020

Experts aren’t sure exactly why some people have headaches and nausea at the same time.

One theory involves a brain chemical called serotonin. Strong headaches known as migraines happen when nerves in your brain signal blood vessels on its surface to get bigger. What else makes them swell? Low levels of serotonin, which are also linked to motion sickness and nausea. People with low levels of serotonin may be more likely to have migraines.

It may also be because of certain nerve pathways (vagus and glossopharyngeal) and brain pathways that excite an area in the brainstem that triggers the vomiting center.

A migraine is the type of headache most likely to make you nauseated. But other causes of head pain can make your stomach upset, too. Whatever type you have, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. They can look for the cause and find the best treatment to help you.

Causes of Headaches and Nausea

Common causes of headaches and nausea

Migraine. Many people who have migraine headaches often have stomach problems at the same time. In fact, 8 out of every 10 people in the U.S. with these headaches say they get nausea along with them.

Some folks are more likely to get nausea with a migraine, like women and people who are prone to motion sickness.

Certain conditions associated with migraine are more likely to cause nausea or vomiting than others. These include:

  • Migraine with or without aura. Those without aura cause severe head pain, sensitivity to light, and nausea. People who have migraines with aura typically have warning symptoms 20 minutes to 1 hour before the headache begins, like nausea, vision problems, and dizziness.
  • Abdominal migraine. In rare cases, children have migraines that cause stomach pain instead of a headache. Those can make them feel nauseated or vomit.
  • Benign paroxysmal vertigo. This can be a precursor of migraine in kids, but it can happen in anyone, even without a history of migraine. It usually happens to people over 60. They often feel like the room is moving or spinning. They may get sick to their stomach or vomit.
  • Cyclic vomiting syndrome. It causes people, usually children, to have periods of nausea and vomiting that can last hours or days. The condition isn’t a type of migraine, but the two seem to be connected. Many kids who have cyclic vomiting syndrome go on to have migraine as adults.

Alcohol. If you overdo it, you can wake up with a splitting headache and nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain. You might also be dizzy, really thirsty, and super sensitive to light and sound. You could also have a headache and nausea along with vomiting when you’re withdrawing from alcohol.

CaffeineWhether you missed your morning coffee or you’re trying to cut down, caffeine withdrawal is real. In addition to having a headache and nausea, you might feel tired and have trouble concentrating.

Coldflu, or stomach flu. These viral illnesses can give you nausea and a bad headache. But unlike migraine headaches, you’ll usually have other symptoms, too, like a runny nosediarrhea, chills, body aches, and fever. Which ones you get depends on the virus.

Allergies. Foods are a well-known headache trigger. You’ll probably feel the pain around your sinuses but only on one side of your head. The pain can be throbbing and make you nauseated. Sunlight might make it worse.

Blood sugar. Say you skip a meal, or you eat a high-sugar dessert and then your blood sugar drops. It can leave you with nausea and a headache. You might also be faint, sweaty, and confused. A headache may also be a sign of high blood sugar. Without treatment, in people who have diabetes, high blood sugar can lead to a serious condition called diabetic ketoacidosis. It could cause nausea and vomiting, along with weakness, confusion, or a coma.

Nicotine. Too much can lead to a headache and nausea, with or without vomiting. You might also have a fast heartbeat, tightness in your chest, and trouble breathing.

PMS. Changes in hormone levels bring on these headaches, which usually strike 2 days before or in the first 3 days of your period. It’ll probably be a throbbing on one side of your head with nausea and sensitivity to lights.

Pregnancy. You can get migraines in pregnancy. You’ll feel pain on one side of your head and might get nauseated. Dehydration from pregnancy-related nausea can also lead to headaches. Some women get fewer migraines while they’re expecting; others notice an uptick in the number of headaches.

Preeclampsia. This condition is marked by high blood pressure in pregnant women. You may not notice any symptoms. Or you could have severe headaches, vision changes, belly pain, nausea, vomiting, or less urine than usual.

Endometriosis. The tissues that typically line a woman’s uterus can sometimes grow outside it, causing severe pain, bleeding, fertility problems, and fatigue. Some women also have nausea, headaches, or dizziness during their period.

Strep throat. In addition to nausea and headaches, this bacterial infection can make it hurt when you swallow, give you a fever and a rash, and cause body aches.

Tonsillitis. This infection mostly affects children. It usually results from a virus, but bacteria can cause it, too. In addition to a headache and nausea, it can cause a sore throat and fever, make your voice scratchy, give you bad breath, and make it hard to swallow.

Stressanxiety, and depression. Headache and upset stomach can be symptoms of all three.

Coronaviruses. The viruses that cause COVID-19, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) have similar symptoms. They include headache, nausea, vomiting, fever, a cough, and trouble breathing.

Food poisoning. Several germs that can lurk in your food may cause headaches and nausea. Or, if you’re throwing up a lot, you might become dehydrated. That can also give you a headache.

High blood pressure. A severe headache, nausea, and vomiting are among the symptoms of very high blood pressure. You might hear this called a hypertensive crisis or malignant hypertension.

Low blood sodium. Your doctor may also call this hyponatremia. Sodium helps regulate water in your body. If you don’t have enough, your cells will swell, leading to a range of symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting, confusion, fatigue, muscle problems, and seizures.

High elevations. When you go to a much higher elevation than you’re used to, you might get altitude or mountain sickness. Headache and nausea are two of the signs of moderate illness.

Glaucoma. High pressure inside your eyes can cause a headache along with nausea and vomiting.

Shigellosis. Stomach problems like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramps are the most common sign of this bacterial infection. In very severe cases, you may also have a headache, dehydration, a stiff neck, confusion, fatigue, or seizures.

Scarlet fever. Bacteria cause this infection, which is typically mild. It’s most common in children and in adults who have close contact with them. Symptoms include a sore throat that’s very red, a high fever, a skin rash, headache or body aches, and nausea or vomiting.

Rare causes of headaches and nausea

Inner ear infection. This is known as labyrinthitis. Inflammation deep inside your ear affects your hearing and balance. You may also have a fever, vision changes, mild headaches, nausea, or vomiting.

Carbon monoxide poisoning. Fumes from fireplaces, furnaces, grills, and some engines contain this gas. You can’t smell or see it. But if you breathe in too much, you could have headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea and vomiting, and chest pain.

West Nile virus. Mosquitoes carry this virus and pass it to people through bites. About 80% of the time, you don’t notice any symptoms. The other 20% of people who get it have a fever, headache, joint or muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or a rash.

Toxic shock syndrome. Most cases of toxic shock happen in young women who use tampons. It may have a range of symptoms. Some of the most common are a high fever, headache, sore throat, pinkeye, muscle aches, nausea, and vomiting.

Dengue fever. Signs of dengue, another virus spread through mosquitoes, include a skin rash, a high fever, and a severe headache. Chills, diarrhea, and vomiting could also happen.

Black widow bite. Most people bitten by these spiders have only some pain, swelling, and redness. But in some cases, bites can cause cramps, chills, fever, belly or chest pain, headache, nausea, or vomiting.

Leptospirosis. This bacterial disease may have a variety of symptoms that look like other illnesses. They include a fever and chills, headache, muscle aches, coughing, nausea, and vomiting.

Cluster headaches. You might have migraine-like nausea with these headaches. When you’re getting a diagnosis, your doctor will ask about your specific symptoms and how often they happen. Those details will help them figure out whether your headache and nausea are related to migraine or to another illness.

Brain bleeding. A hemorrhage or ruptured aneurysm can cause the worst headache you’ve ever had and make you feel nauseated. You might also throw up, pass out, get blurry vision or other trouble seeing, or notice pain behind one eye. Other symptoms include confusion, dizziness, problems walking, and sensitivity to light. If you have all these, get to a doctor right away.

Brain injury. You can get a headache up to 7 days after head trauma. Your doctor may call it a post-traumatic headache. It often comes with nausea, vomiting, vision problems, dizziness, and trouble with memory or concentration.

Brain tumor. You can have a brain tumor with no symptoms. But it often causes a headache that gets worse when you’re active or in the early morning. And tumors can make you feel nauseated or throw up, as well as tired. They can cause memory problems and seizures, too.

Brain infection. A severe headache that causes nausea and extreme sensitivity to light may sound like a migraine. But if you also have a stiff neck, with or without a fever, it could be brain inflammation (encephalitis) or inflammation of the tissues around your brain (meningitis). These are serious conditions that need medical care right away.

Acoustic neuroma. Tumors can also grow around the nerves that connect your inner ear and your brain. Early on, they cause hearing and balance problems. Later signs include dizziness, vision problems, headaches, changes in your behavior or sense of taste, nausea, and vomiting.

Malaria and yellow fever. They’re often lumped together, but these diseases, both spread by mosquitoes, aren’t the same. Malaria results from a parasite, yellow fever from a virus. But both can cause symptoms like chills, severe headache, nausea, and fatigue.

Hepatitis A. This virus that affects your liver can also cause joint and muscle pain, a mild fever, rashes, pain in your upper right belly, headaches, and nausea. You’ll probably notice symptoms about 4 weeks after you get infected. You get this disease when you’re exposed to an infected person’s poop. It’s often spread through food or ice cubes.

Fifth disease. Children are most likely to get this illness, which is caused by a virus that spreads through contact with body fluids like mucus, blood, and saliva. A rash is the most common symptom. Some children also have a low fever, headache, runny nose, sore throat, itching, nausea, or diarrhea.

Kidney disease. Headache, nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms. You might also notice back pain, dizziness, fatigue, and a change in the way food tastes.

Adrenal crisis. A condition called Addison’s disease can damage your adrenal glands so they don’t make enough of two important hormones. Without treatment, it can lead to a condition called an adrenal or addisonian crisis. Headache and nausea are two of the symptoms, in addition to dehydration, sweating, shallow breathing, dizziness, weakness, and fainting.

HELLP syndrome. Experts aren’t sure why this dangerous condition can happen during pregnancy. It’s often linked with preeclampsia and eclampsia. Problems with your blood cells and liver enzymes may lead to belly pain, headache, nausea or vomiting, vision problems, high blood pressure, and swelling.

Anthrax. Bacteria found in animals and soil cause this illness. Signs of infection can start up to 2 months after you come into contact with them. If you breathe in the spores, you might have headache, nausea, or vomiting along with fever, chills, severe sweating, fatigue, cough, and body aches.

Colorado tick fever. This disease usually begins about 5 days after a bite from a tick that’s carrying a virus. It causes flu-like symptoms including fever and chills, headaches, sensitivity to light, muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. 

Medullary cystic disease. Changes in your genes make fluid build up in cysts inside part of your kidneys called the medulla. Over time, your kidneys stop working the way they should. Symptoms usually begin before age 20 and include peeing more than usual, weight loss, nausea, vomiting, headache, skin changes, and muscle problems.

Ebola. Rare but severe, Ebola virus disease can cause a strong headache, muscle and joint pain, belly pain, and vomiting in addition to dangerous bleeding.

Polio. Vaccines wiped out this viral disease in the United States and many other countries. Symptoms are rare and include fever, fatigue, nausea, headache, stiff neck and back, and limb pain.

Treatment for Headaches and Nausea

A number of things can ease migraine with nausea. They include:

  • Lifestyle changes. Stress is a common trigger for nauseating migraine headaches. Find ways to cut it, and your attacks could get less severe and happen less often. What else helps? Quit smoking, and keep a diary to identify any foods that trigger your headaches. Common culprits include chocolate and alcohol.
  • Medications. Your doctor might prescribe drugs to prevent migraine headaches, to stop them once they've started, and to ease your symptoms. You can also take anti-nausea medications during your headache. They come in different forms, like pills, suppositories, syrups, and shots. They have a number of side effects, so work with your doctor to find the best one for you.
  • Complementary treatments. Some evidence shows that biofeedback and acupuncture may help ease migraine and related symptoms, such as nausea. Meditation can also help.

What Are the Treatment Options?

A number of things can ease migraine with nausea. They include:

Lifestyle changes.Stress is a common trigger for nauseating migraine headaches. Find ways to cut it, and your attacks could get less severe and happen less often. What else helps? Quit smoking, and keep a diary to identify any foods that trigger your headaches. Common culprits include chocolate and alcohol.

Medications. Your doctor might prescribe drugs to prevent migraine headaches, to stop them once they've started, and to relieve your symptoms.

You can also take anti-nausea medications during your headache. They come in different forms, like pills, suppositories, syrups, and shots. They have a number of side effects, so work with your doctor to find one that works for you.

Complementary treatments. Some evidence shows that biofeedback and acupuncture may help ease migraine and related symptoms, such as nausea.

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