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Acute Headache


An acute headache is pain or discomfort that starts suddenly and gets worse quickly. You may have an acute headache only when you feel stress or eat certain foods. Other acute headache pain can happen every day, and sometimes several times a day.


Return to the emergency department if:

  • You have severe pain.
  • You have numbness or weakness on one side of your face or body.
  • You have a headache that occurs after a blow to the head, a fall, or other trauma.
  • You have a headache, are forgetful or confused, or have trouble speaking.
  • You have a headache, stiff neck, and a fever.

Contact your healthcare provider if:

  • You have a constant headache and are vomiting.
  • You have a headache each day that does not get better, even after treatment.
  • You have changes in your headaches, or new symptoms that occur when you have a headache.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.


You may need any of the following:

  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. The medicine your healthcare provider recommends will depend on the kind of headaches you have. You will need to take prescription headache medicines as directed to prevent a problem called rebound headache. These headaches happen with regular use of pain relievers for headache disorders.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines you are using to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly. Do not use more than 3 grams (3,000 milligrams) total of acetaminophen in one day.
  • Antidepressants may be given for some kinds of headaches.
  • Take your medicine as directed. Call your healthcare provider if you think your medicine is not helping or if you have side effects. Tell him if you are allergic to any medicine. Keep a list of the medicines, vitamins, and herbs you take. Include the amounts, and when and why you take them. Bring the list or the pill bottles to follow-up visits. Carry your medicine list with you in case of an emergency.

Manage your symptoms:

  • Apply heat or ice on the headache area. Use a heat or ice pack. For an ice pack, you can also put crushed ice in a plastic bag. Cover the pack or bag with a towel before you apply it to your skin. Ice and heat both help decrease pain, and heat also helps decrease muscle spasms. Apply heat for 20 to 30 minutes every 2 hours. Apply ice for 15 to 20 minutes every hour. Apply heat or ice for as long and for as many days as directed. You may alternate heat and ice.
  • Relax your muscles. Lie down in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Relax your muscles slowly. Start at your toes and work your way up your body.
  • Keep a record of your headaches. Write down when your headaches start and stop. Include your symptoms and what you were doing when the headache began. Record what you ate or drank for 24 hours before the headache started. Describe the pain and where it hurts. Keep track of what you did to treat your headache and if it worked.

Prevent an acute headache:

  • Avoid anything that triggers an acute headache. Examples include exposure to chemicals, going to high altitude, or not getting enough sleep. Create a regular sleep routine. Go to sleep at the same time and wake up at the same time each day. Do not use electronic devices before bedtime. These may trigger a headache or prevent you from sleeping well.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can trigger an acute headache or make it worse. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Limit alcohol as directed. Alcohol can trigger an acute headache or make it worse. If you have cluster headaches, do not drink alcohol during an episode. For other types of headaches, ask your healthcare provider if it is safe for you to drink alcohol. Ask how much is safe for you to drink, and how often.
  • Exercise as directed. Exercise can reduce tension and help with headache pain. Aim for 30 minutes of physical activity on most days of the week. Your healthcare provider can help you create an exercise plan.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, whole grains, and cooked beans. Your healthcare provider or dietitian can help you create meals plans if you need to avoid foods that trigger headaches.

Follow up with your healthcare provider as directed:

Bring your headache record with you when you see your healthcare provider. Write down your questions so you remember to ask them during your visits.

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The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.