Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on May 27, 2020

Your Vision's Blurry


You may get a headache when you try to focus on something near your face. If you're farsighted, things look fuzzy as you get closer to them. It could be because your eyeball is too short or the clear covering on your eye, called the cornea, is too flat. You might be born with it, but it starts to happen to most folks after age 40. Your doctor can help with eyeglasses, contact lenses, or surgery that corrects the shape of your cornea. 

You Tense Your Neck and Shoulders


Do you hunch over your computer for hours or hold your phone to your ear with your shoulder? Or maybe stress makes you tense the muscles in your jaw. Any of these may cause "tension headaches." A hot shower, warming pad, and over-the-counter meds can help. Regular exercise along with meditation and other relaxation approaches might stop it before it starts.

You're Hungry


Maybe you haven't had a meal in a while. It could give you low blood sugar, which triggers a headache. It might help to have several small meals instead of three big ones and keep healthy snacks like nuts or veggies on hand for emergencies.

You Skipped Your Morning Coffee


Your body gets used to the caffeine and reminds you with a throbbing head if you forget to drink your regular cup. When coffee isn't at hand, green or black tea or even dark chocolate will do. If you want to quit your caffeine habit, don't do it all at once. Cut down by about 25% a week to get used to it.

You Had Sex


You may have a dull ache in your neck or head that worsens as you get more sexually excited. Or it might be a throbbing headache that arrives quickly just as you climax. Some people feel both. Most last minutes, but it can be hours. It's usually nothing to worry about, but tell your doctor right away if you get a headache during or after sex, especially if it never happened before or it's sudden, which could be signs of something serious.

Your Sinuses Are Swollen


A simple cold can inflame hollow areas behind your cheekbones and forehead. The swelling could cause pain there that worsens when you bend over. It might be hard to breathe because mucus, which can get thick and yellow or green, doesn't drain properly. Over-the-counter drugs can often help you manage it. There's no need to call your doctor unless the symptoms are bad, don't go away, or get worse.

You Drank Too Much Last Night


Today you pay with a hangover that includes a throbbing head. That's because alcohol disturbs your sleep and rids your body of liquid. You may feel tired and nauseous, too. About five to eight drinks for men and three to five for women is enough to cause it. Rehydrate with water, broth, or sports drinks. Anti-inflammatory drugs can help, but avoid acetaminophen, which is too hard on your liver when you've been drinking.

You Just Ate Ice Cream


Sometimes called an "ice cream headache" or "brain freeze," it happens when you eat something very cold, especially if you do it fast. Doctors aren't sure what causes it, but it could be that the icy temperature makes the blood vessels in your mouth shrink, which triggers pain signals to your brain. It's nothing to worry about and is usually gone in a minute or so. Prevention is simple: Eat frosty foods more slowly.

You Hit Your Head


Headaches can start right away or months after an injury. They might be at the site of the blow or all over your skull and may get worse when you're stressed. The cause isn't always clear, but sometimes too much blood builds up in one spot. This is called a hematoma. In serious cases, you may feel weak, confused, nauseous, and forgetful. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms or if you have a headache after hitting your head.

You Have an Ear Infection


Bacteria or a virus may infect the air-filled middle ear, where tiny bones vibrate to make the sounds you hear. It usually happens fast. Fluid buildup could cause ear and head pain along with drainage of liquid, blood, or pus. If you notice any of these symptoms, call your doctor, who will want to watch the infection and can help you manage pain and swelling. Most cases get better without treatment in 1-2 weeks.

You Overdo Your Pain Relievers


Even common over-the-counter medications like aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen may cause headaches if you use them more than 15 days a month. Prescription opioids or drugs with caffeine might do it in just 10 days. People who get migraines are more likely to have this problem. Your doctor can help you change your meds and give you other strategies to make you feel better.

You Ate a Headache "Trigger"


Everyone is different, but foods that are more likely to cause a throbbing head include:

  • Aged cheese
  • Some fruits and nuts
  • Alcohol
  • Foods with nitrates, like hot dogs, sausage, or bacon
  • Fermented or pickled foods like sauerkraut or relish
  • A flavor enhancer called MSG

You can figure out your triggers if you track what and when you eat in a food journal and notice what leads to a headache.

You Just Worked Out


You might hurt on both sides of your head while you exercise hard or after you're done. Running, swimming, or weightlifting can bring it on. It's usually nothing to worry about, but it's best to check with your doctor to be sure it's not something serious. Get medical help right away if you also throw up, pass out, or have double vision.

You've Got the Wrong Pillow


It may give you a headache if it puts your body in the wrong posture all night. And if you toss and turn, the lack of sleep might also lead to a pounding head. Look for a pillow that keeps your head and neck in line with the rest of your body, as if you are standing up. Talk to your doctor or a physical therapist if you can't get comfortable.   

When to Call 911


In rare cases, a headache might be a sign of something more serious. It could be a condition that develops slowly, such as a brain tumor. Or it could be a medical emergency, like a stroke. Call 911 if the pain is sudden and severe or you notice any of these symptoms along with it:

  • Numbness or weakness on one side of your face or body
  • Garbled speech or confusion
  • Trouble seeing
  • Dizziness, loss of balance

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American Academy of Ophthalmology: "What Is Presbyopia?"

American Optometric Association: "Hyperopia (Farsightedness)."

American Migraine Foundation: "Mild Closed Head Injury and Headache," "Medication Overuse Headache," "Understanding Caffeine Headaches."

Cleveland Clinic: "Headaches and Food."

Harvard Health Publishing: "What causes ice cream headache?"

Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Library: "Hangover Headache."

Mayo Clinic: "Cough headaches," "Exercise headaches," "Ear infection (middle ear)," "Ice Cream Headaches," "Acute Sinusitis," "Sex Headaches," "Tension Headaches," "Farsightedness."

National Eye Institute: "Facts About the Cornea and Corneal Disease."

National Headache Foundation: "Hypoglycemia."

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "Headache: Hope Through Research."

National Sleep Foundation: "Waking up with a throbbing head? Find out what may be the root cause."

National Stroke Association: "Signs and Symptoms of Stroke."

The Migraine Trust: "Hypoglycaemia."