Headache Symptoms

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 05, 2023
3 min read

There are many types of headaches. Although not all headaches are the same, they have at least one thing in common: pain. But many headaches also cause other unwanted symptoms, including nausea and vomiting.

If you feel throbbing that begins on one side of your head and causes nausea or makes you sensitive to sound and light, you may have a migraine.

Symptoms vary from person to person and from episode to episode. Different phases can often be identified:

  • Prodrome. You may have a variety of warnings before a migraine. These include a change in mood (for example, feeling "high," cranky, or depressed) or a subtle change of sensation (such as noticing a funny taste or smell). Fatigue and muscle tension are also common. Some people have food cravings, constipation, or yawning.
  • Aura. This is usually a visual disturbance. Some people who have migraine get blind spots (called scotomas); see geometric patterns or flashing colorful lights; or lose vision on one side (hemianopsia).
  • Headache. Most people with migraine headaches feel nauseated, and some vomit. Most also become sensitive to light (photophobia) and sound (phonophobia) during a migraine. This phase may last 4 to 72 hours.
  • Headache termination. Even without treatment, the pain usually goes away with sleep.
  • Postdrome. Other signs of the migraine (for example, not being able to eat, problems with concentration, or fatigue) may linger after the pain has disappeared.

If you feel a steady pain in the area behind your face that gets worse if you bend forward -- and if you also have nasal congestion -- you may have a sinus headache. This type can lead to:

  • Deep and constant pain in the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose
  • Pain that gets worse with sudden head movement 
  • Pain along with other sinus symptoms, like nasal discharge, a feeling of fullness in the ears, fever, and facial swelling


If you feel a dull, steady pain that feels like a band tightening around your head, you may have a tension headache. There are different types:

Episodic tension headaches (happening less than 15 days per month)

  • Pain is mild to moderate, constant, band-like pain or pressure.
  • Pain affects the front, top, or sides of the head.
  • Pain usually begins gradually and often happens in the middle of the day.
  • Pain may last 30 minutes to several days.

Chronic tension headaches (happening more than 15 days per month)

  • The level of pain may vary throughout the day, but the pain is almost always present.
  • Pain comes and goes over a long period of time.

Symptoms of tension headaches include:

  • Headache when you wake up
  • Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Crankiness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Mild sensitivity to light or noise
  • General muscle aching

With this type of headache, you’ll probably notice:

  • Intense pain on one side of your head. People often describe it as burning, piercing, throbbing, or constant.
  • Pain behind or around one eye that doesn’t change sides
  • Pain that lasts a short time, generally 30 to 90 minutes (but can last 3 hours). The headache will disappear, only to come back later that day. (Most people with this type get one to three headaches, and some up to eight per day, during a cluster period.)
  • Headaches happen very regularly, generally at the same time each day, and often awaken the person at the same time during the night.



  • Have a sudden, severe headache. It is the “worst headache of your life.” Or you have had a seizure, are confused, have passed out, or have a change in behavior. These may be signs of a stroke.
  • Have a severe headache with vomiting, limb weakness, double vision, slurred speech, or trouble swallowing. This may signal a stroke, cerebral hemorrhage, or an aneurysm.



  • Have a kind of headache that you've never felt before. Does it happen the first thing in the morning, bring on vomiting, and then go away during the day?
  • Have a high fever and severe pain with nausea and a stiff neck. You may have meningitis.
  • Are drowsy with dizziness, vertigo, nausea, or vomiting after a head injury. You may have a concussion.
  • Have recurring or very painful headaches