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Headache treatment

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read
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Headaches are very common health conditions that most people will experience from time to time. Several things can trigger a headache: emotional factors (stress, lack of 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. Also, depending on the type of headache, the cause may be more clear.

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.

Emotional Factors

Stress

Consider incorporating stress-reducing activities into your daily routine, such as mindfulness meditation or progressive muscle relaxation.

Identify stress triggers and develop coping mechanisms.

Maintain a healthy work-life balance to reduce overall stress levels.

Sleep

It is important to have good sleep hygiene.

Create a bedtime routine to signal to your body that it's time to wind down.

Keep the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet to promote restful sleep.

Limit screen time before bedtime, as the blue light emitted by devices can interfere with the sleep-wake cycle.

Depression and Anxiety

Seek support from mental health professionals for counselling or therapy.

Consider mindfulness-based interventions, which have shown effectiveness in managing symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Communicate openly with healthcare providers about emotional well-being.

Environment

Noise

Use noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs in noisy environments.

Create a quiet space at home for relaxation and rest.

Temperature and Humidity

Maintain a comfortable indoor temperature and humidity level.

Use fans or air purifiers to improve air circulation and quality.

Lighting

Adjust lighting conditions to suit your sensitivity, using softer or natural lighting.

Consider wearing sunglasses outdoors, especially in bright sunlight.

Other Factors

Infections

Practice good respiratory hygiene, such as covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

Wash hands or use hand sanitizers regularly to minimize the spread of infections.

Follow appropriate preventive measures, such as getting a flu vaccine.

Hydration Status

Ensure you're drinking enough water throughout the day, especially in warm or dry climates.

Understand your body - know when you are dehydrated. You can use the skin pinch test.

Limit the consumption of dehydrating beverages like caffeinated or alcoholic drinks.

Use oral rehydration solutions if you find yourself dehydrated

Medication-related

Always read medication labels and be aware of potential side effects.

Consult with healthcare professionals if you suspect a medication is contributing to headaches.

Caffeine Intake

Gradually reduce caffeine intake if trying to cut back, as sudden withdrawal can lead to headaches.

Stay within recommended daily caffeine limits, and be mindful of hidden sources of caffeine in medications and beverages.

What painkillers 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 painkiller such as acetaminophen 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 needed to treat your headache and minimize side effects.

That being said, for mild to moderate headaches, most people will find that taking acetaminophen, 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 happen 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 a stiff neck and confusion, it would be best to treat this as an emergency and call 911 for a more urgent review.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

  • Acetaminophen in combination with ibuprofen is the most effective treatment for headaches. 

  • Codeine-based medications are usually best to avoid unless recommended by your doctor. 

  • Cold compresses can be effective for migraines, as they may help constrict blood vessels and reduce inflammation.

  • If your headache is due to sinus congestion or inflammation, a cold compress may help alleviate the discomfort by reducing swelling.

  • Warm compresses can be soothing for tension headaches, as they may help relax muscles and improve blood flow.

  • If stress is a contributing factor, a warm compress can provide comfort and relaxation.

  • If you have a migraine coming on, taking pain relief can sometimes stop it in its tracks.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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