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Best Painkillers for Headaches

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 2 minutes read

Headaches are very common health conditions that most people will experience from time to time. Several things can trigger a headache; emotional factors (stress, sleep, depression, anxiety), associated infections (cold, flu, hay fever), environment (noise, temperature, humidity), including other factors such as hydration status, medication-related, and caffeine intake.

Doctor’s advice

Prevention rather than treatment

Monitoring what things tend to trigger a headache, and avoiding them can be important. Preventing rather than getting to the point of needing a cure can be the best way to stay well. Ensuring you are well hydrated, getting good amounts of sleep, reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption, eating regular balanced meals, taking regular exercise, and managing stress can be good places to start.

For non-medication tips and tricks that can be tried before taking pain killers. Using a heat or ice pack, applied to the head or neck can help. These should not be too hot or too cold as they can have the opposite effect.

What pain killers should I use?

When it comes to treating headaches with painkillers, a step-by-step approach should be used known as the "pain ladder". What this means is that you should start with a mild pain killer such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, then gradually step up your treatment if it is not providing enough relief. This ensures that you are taking the lowest amount of medication able to treat your headache and minimise side effects.

That being said, for mild to moderate headaches, most people will find that taking paracetamol, ibuprofen or a combination of the two, highly effective in relieving their symptoms.

When should I see my doctor?

Most headaches can be treated and managed at home, or with the help of your pharmacist. You should see your doctor if you are unable to control your headaches with simple measures or if your headaches are more severe than expected or happening more frequently than a few times a month.

You should see your doctor if you experience headaches that come on suddenly and are the worst you have ever experienced. If there are any changes such as slurred speech, confusion, weakness, and numbness, or if your headaches occur with fever, nausea vomiting, or stiff neck and confusion it would be best to treat this as an emergency and call 999 for a more urgent review.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Paracetamol in combination with ibuprofen is the most effective treatment for headaches. Codeine-based medications are usually best to avoid unless recommended by your doctor.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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