Headache and Migraine

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This fact sheet helps you to know what’s ‘normal’ and what you can expect to happen if you develop an occasional headache. It also tells you when you should become concerned and seek advice from a health professional.

Useful facts

Common types of headache: The most common headache is tension-type headache – the one we think of as ‘ordinary’ or ‘everyday’ headache. Tension headache tends to be mild to moderately severe and affects both sides of the head. It usually feels ‘pressing’ or ‘tightening’ and is not aggravated by routine daily activities. Migraine is a moderate or severe throbbing headache affecting one or both sides of the head and made worse by ordinary daily activities.

Less common causes of headache: These include cluster headache (a severe or very severe pain around and above the eye), headache from overusing pain killers (¹affecting about one to two out of 100 people), inflamed blood vessels, and raised pressure inside the head (for example from a bleed or tumour).

Headaches are common: Tension headaches are very common and most people get them from time to time.  15 per cent of adults in the UK suffer from migraines².

Migraine triggers: Migraines can have many triggers, such as certain foods, stress, hunger, tiredness. Changes in the menstrual cycle, menopause and contraception can have an impact on migraines.

What can I expect to happen?

Rarely serious: Although headaches can severely affect your life, they’re rarely serious or life-threatening. Most get better by themselves, often within 24 hours.³

Tests: You won’t usually need further tests, such as scans or blood tests.

What can I do to get myself better now and in the future?

Headache diary:  Keep a headache diary and record how often you get headaches, how long they last, and whether they are mild, moderate or severe.

  • This can be helpful to decide whether your headaches follow a particular pattern and shows how they respond to treatment, which is useful when you need to discuss them with a health professional.
  • A headache diary can also be used to identify and help you manage triggers.
  • A useful online version for monitoring migraine headache is available on the Migraine Trust website: https://migrainetrust.org/live-with-migraine/self-management/keeping-a-migraine-diary/

Lifestyle: Try to keep a regular sleep pattern and exercise regularly.

Diet and fluids:  Drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of fluid (ideally water) a day. Avoid alcohol and take regular meals.

Painkillers:  Various painkillers are available without prescription from your pharmacist. Choosing a preparation often comes down to personal preferences and needs to take into account other medical conditions that you may have, other medicines that you may be taking, and the risk of potential side effects. Special migraine medications are available for treating migraine attacks on prescription from your GP . Avoid taking painkillers for headaches for more than 10 to 15 days per month as this can also cause headaches.

Other treatments: Acupuncture can help with migraine and tension type headache. Riboflavin, magnesium and co-enzyme Q10  (available as food supplements from health food shops) may help reduce migraine frequency and intensity in some people. Manual therapy may help if you also suffer from neck aches. 

When should I seek medical attention?

Seek medical advice if over the counter treatments don’t relieve your symptoms, or if you find it difficult to get on with your daily activities or go to work. Also speak to a health professional if you notice any of the following:

Frequency: Your headaches become more and more frequent.

Additional symptoms: You vomit for no apparent reason or have a high fever. You develop a stiff neck or feel drowsy.

After head injury: You suffer from persisting headaches after a blow or other injury to your head (though a mild headache for one to two days after a head injury is common and usually harmless).

Sleep: Your headache prevents you from getting to sleep or wakes you.
Certain situations: Your headache is worse on coughing, straining, bending, lying flat or laughing.
Speech and personality: You notice a change in speech or personality.

Odd sensations: You develop weakness, numbness or other odd sensations anywhere on your body, or you feel unsteady on your feet.

Severity: You develop a sudden severe headache, like ‘being hit with a hammer’.

Eyes: Your eyes feel really uncomfortable when looking at bright light, or you suffer other new eye symptoms, such as sudden blind spots.

Other symptoms: You have muscle pains, pain on chewing, a tender scalp, or feel unwell.

Where can I find out more?

These sites have more information on how you can treat and prevent headache:
The NHS website: 
Migraine Trust: 

A member of your pharmacy team can also help you with assessing your symptoms and treatment options.

We review our health information every two years and this information is due to be updated in October 2024.  Here are details about how we develop and review our self care aware fact sheets.