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8 Types of Headaches—and How to Get Rid of Them

A headache is not just a headache.

illustration of headache pain on one side of headTatiana Ayazo /rd.com

One side of your head: Migraine

If the pain is located only on one side of your head (either the left or the right) and it feels like it’s throbbing or pulsating, it’s likely a migraine. And while there are more than a dozen reasons why you might suffer from migraines, there’s no question that they’re rough to get through. “This pain typically is severe and affects functioning,” says Raissa Villanueva, MD, MPH, a neurologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. It may also cause other debilitating symptoms like light and sound sensitivity. Your best option is to stop what you’re doing and rest, she advises. If they’re frequent enough to affect your life, talk to a doctor who may look into a preventative Rx. Some foods trigger headaches, here are the foods that can make it worse.

illustration of squeezing or pressure headache painTatiana Ayazo /rd.com

Wraps around your head: Tension headache

A squeezing pressure or aching pain that wraps around your head is likely a tension-type headache. You might want to check into everyday habits that can relieve your headaches—because these are no fun. “Patients often say it’s like having a vice around their head,” says Dr. Villanueva. Taking OTC pain relievers like NSAIDs or acetaminophen as directed can nip the pain in the bud. Even better: Combo medications containing aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine have been found to give sufferers relief two hours earlier compared to taking acetaminophen alone or a placebo, per research in The Journal of Headache and Pain. (Caffeine may help make the active ingredients more potent.)

sinus migraineTatiana Ayazo/rd.com

In your face: Sinus headache

If you feel pressure in your eyes and cheeks, you probably assume sinus headache. But these are actually pretty rare and are often actually migraines, which are the more likely cause of facial pain, notes Dr. Villanueva. If you’ve been diagnosed with a viral or bacterial infection (and have clear symptoms of a sinus infection like aching teeth, lack of smell, and thick, green mucus), your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics (if it’s bacterial) or suggest nasal decongestant sprays or antihistamines. One of the best things you can do is be proactive about preventing a headache with these 32 habits.

headacheTatiana Ayazo /rd.com

Sudden pain anywhere in your head: Thunderclap headache

There are a few signs your headache is something more serious—and a thunderclap headache can be one of them. It feels like a lightning strike inside your head. They are intense, last at least five minutes, and you may not know why they’re happening, according to the American Migraine Foundation. They also come on quickly, reaching their peak within one minute. When you’re talking about types of headaches, this one should send off alarm signals. If you experience one, get in touch with your doctor or go to the ER. They can be caused by life-threatening conditions like a brain aneurysm, stroke, or a brain hemorrhage. Get help ASAP.

illustration of cluster headache painTatiana Ayazo /rd.com

Behind your eye: Cluster headache

If it feels like something is poking you (hard!) behind the eye, it may be a cluster headache. “These are also called suicide headaches because the pain is very, very severe,” says Dr. Villanueva. They affect men more often than women and are associated with other symptoms like redness in the eye with the pain, tearing in that eye, nose running on that side, or droopiness of the eyelid on that side, she adds. You may also feel agitated and want to get up and pace. Unfortunately, as Dr. Villanueva notes, people suffer for years before getting diagnosed. To get rid of a headache like this, your MD may suggest high-flow oxygen treatment (where you inhale oxygen from a face mask). 

illustration of the pain associated with an allergy headacheTatiana Ayazo /rd.com

Top of head and/or face: Allergy headache

Although they involve the sinuses, allergy-induced headaches are seasonal, and you’ll experience other symptoms like runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes. You’ll want to get a diagnosis from your doctor to correctly ID the problem. For headache relief, avoid allergy triggers and use OTC or prescription antihistamines and decongestants, says Dr. Villanueva.

illustration of an airplane headacheTatiana Ayazo /rd.com

Stabbing pain on one side: Airplane headache

As if air travel wasn’t hard enough, some people suffer from airplane headaches, according to a 2017 study in The Journal of Headache and Pain. They’re set off by changes in pressure during the airplane trip. To lower your risk of getting one, manage stress (not always an easy thing in an airport), stay hydrated, and take an OTC painkiller when you feel the ache approaching. Don’t forget that doctors get headaches, too; these are the ways experts stop their own headaches.

illustration of an exertional headacheTatiana Ayazo /rd.com

Anywhere around your head: Exercise headache

If head pain is triggered by something very specific—exercise, orgasm–it may be an exercise headache. These may stick around for five minutes up to two days, according to the American Migraine Foundation (AMF). They also have rather variable symptoms, says Dr. Villanueva. “They can be severe, one-sided, pulsating, aching, or make you nauseous,” she says. It’s actually rare (and exercise-triggered migraines are different), but you need to see a doctor who will evaluate you for an underlying reason for the pain, as well as more serious causes like a hemorrhage. If there’s no medical problem causing these headaches, they typically go away after three to six months. In the meantime, take naproxen 30 to 60 minutes before a workout, suggests the AMF. (Consult your doctor before starting any new medication.) Next, check out these smart ways to avoid headaches during the summer.

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Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on November 07, 2019