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Cluster Headache


A cluster headache

is a very painful headache that starts quickly, peaks within 15 minutes, and stops suddenly. The headache usually lasts 30 to 60 minutes but can last up to 3 hours. Cluster headaches follow patterns and often occur at the same time of the day or year. You may have cluster headaches once every other day, or up to 8 each day. A cluster period usually lasts for 2 to 12 weeks but can last longer than a year. Weeks or months may pass before a new cluster period begins. A cluster headache can be triggered by alcohol, medicine, stress, bright light, or heat.

Common symptoms include the following:

  • Severe pain on one side of your head that stabs or burns
  • Swollen or watery eye, or droopy eyelid
  • A runny or stuffy nose
  • Red or sweaty face
  • Restlessness
  • Sensitive to noise or light
  • Exhaustion after the headache stops

You or someone close to you should call 911 if:

  • Your pain is so bad you think about committing suicide.

Seek care immediately if:

  • You feel tired or sleepy.
  • You cannot see clearly.
  • Your stomach is upset or you are vomiting.
  • You have a seizure.

Contact your healthcare provider or neurologist if:

  • You cannot get enough sleep because of your headaches.
  • Your headaches happen each time you are active.
  • Treatment does not help your symptoms.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.


Cluster headaches cannot be cured, but treatment may help your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may have you try several medicines to find out what works best for you. You may need medicines for pain and for prevention. The following may be used to treat pain during a cluster headache:

  • Extra oxygen may give you pain relief during a cluster headache. You will breathe through a plastic mask that is attached to an oxygen tank for about 15 minutes.
  • Migraine medicine may be given to relieve your pain quickly.
  • Steroids may help reduce pain and swelling. Steroids may also be used to prevent cluster headaches.
  • Numbing medicine may be given to numb your pain if other treatments do not work.
  • Surgery may be used if other treatments do not work. Surgery may be used to remove certain nerves that can lead to cluster headache pain. You may also need surgery to lower pain and inflammation in the nerves around your eye.

Manage your symptoms:

  • Do not smoke. Cluster headaches are more common among smokers. 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.
  • Do not drink alcohol during a cluster period. Alcohol triggers more headaches during cluster periods.
  • Do not travel between altitudes. Altitude changes can trigger headaches. Do not fly on an airplane or travel between places with high and low altitudes.
  • Set a regular sleep schedule. Go to sleep and wake up at the same times each day. Changes in sleep patterns may trigger cluster headaches.
  • Manage stress. Stress, long hours at work, and emotional challenges can trigger cluster headaches. Find out what works for you to lower stress.
  • Keep a headache record. Write down when your headaches start and stop, and exactly what you were doing when they began. Record what you ate or drank and how much you slept in the 24 hours before the headache. Keep track of the things you did to treat your symptoms. Write down if they did or did not help. Do this to learn what triggers your headaches and how to make them go away.
  • Work with your healthcare provider to manage your pain. Both pain relievers and medicines used to treat other health conditions can trigger cluster headaches. Go over all your medicines with your healthcare provider. Work with your provider to manage your headache pain and other conditions.

Follow up with your healthcare provider or neurologist as directed:

Bring your headache record. 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.

Learn more about Cluster Headache (Ambulatory Care)

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