Signs a Headache Can Be Life-Threatening from Signs a Headache Can Be Life-Threatening

Signs a Headache Can Be Life-Threatening

Most of the time a headache is just that – a nuisance caused by dehydration or staring at a monitor for too long, two of the worst things you are doing to your body.

If a headache is an indication of a serious condition, it will usually come with other signs, Dr. Jacqueline Kraveka, an oncologist and professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, says. “But they can also be the only symptom.”

About half of adults in the world have a headache disorder, according to the World Health Organization. Migraine on its own was found to be the sixth highest cause of years lost due to disability.

If you are among them, how would you tell the difference between your usual headaches and the more serious kind? “You can keep a headache diary,” Dr. Kraveka says. “This way you will see how long they last, when they occur, and after what activity.” Anything out of the ordinary is a sign you should see a doctor.

Brain Tumor

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A bad headache is a common symptom of brain tumor, Dr. Kraveka says. “But it’s usually associated with vomiting, slow speech and many times with weakness in the arms.” There are going to be new onset headaches or changes in the pattern of the pain. They can gradually start to occur more often. You can also have trouble maintaining your balance or have vision problems.

Stroke

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When the blood flow to part of your brain is reduced, the brain doesn’t get enough oxygen. Brain cells begin to die quickly after that causing a sudden and severe headache. “Generally you will feel weakness in your body, not really pain,” Dr. Kraveka adds. Other symptoms depend on which part of the brain is not getting enough oxygen. They are usually worse at the beginning. Sometimes you may not even know you have a stroke. Signs include confusion, loss of memory, problems swallowing, sleepiness, trouble speaking.

Very High Blood Pressure

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People sometimes don’t know their blood pressure is too high until they go to the doctor with a headache. Very high blood pressure sometimes triggers malignant hypertension, which often comes with blurred vision, chest pain, and nausea, Dr. Kraveka says. Common headache meds won’t work with this kind of headache. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for strokes, heart attacks and heart disease. Hypertensive crises – where the blood pressure is severely elevated - 180 or higher over 110 or higher - can be an emergency, according to the American Heart Association.

Infections

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Headache can be a symptom of several infections. “If you have meningitis, you’ll have a severe headache, light will bother you, your neck will be stiff and you’re also likely have a fever,” Dr. Kraveka says. “If it’s an ear infection that has gone to the bone, you’ll feel pain behind your neck,” she adds.

Head Trauma

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If you had any kind of head injury and your head hurts afterwards, you should see a doctor, Dr. Kraveka says. It could be a concussion. A sudden movement, such as a blow or a shake, can cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, stretching and damaging the brain cells and creating chemical changes in the brain, according to the CDC. Other symptoms include dizziness, vomiting and ringing in the ears.

Brain Aneurysm

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Brain aneurysm is when a blood vessel fills up with blood. This is dangerous because it can burst, causing a stroke, Dr. Kraveka says. Sometimes, an aneurysm may leak a slight amount of blood. Unfortunately, an unruptured brain aneurysm may have no symptoms at all. When it does, along with a headache comes pain above or behind one eye, numbness or vision problems, she adds.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

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If you have been exposed to too much carbon monoxide, the body will react by replacing the oxygen in the red blood cells with carbon monoxide, leading to serious problems, even death. A dull headache, along with weakness, dizziness, shortness of breath and confusion are common symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic. “People may have irreversible brain damage or even be killed before anyone realizes there's a problem.”

Subarachnoid Hemorrhage

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Subarachnoid hemorrhage, bleeding between the brain and the thin tissues that cover the brain, is a medical emergency. It can be caused by a head injury or a bleeding disorder. High blood pressure is a risk factor. A sudden and severe headache will be the main symptom. It may or may not come with vision problems, weakness, vomiting, seizure or stiff neck.

Giant Cell Arteritis

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This is also called temporal arteritis. It is an inflammation of the lining of the arteries, most often those in the head, which is why bad headaches that just don’t seem to go away are a common symptom. Other signs include jaw pain and blurred vision. If it doesn’t get treated, it can lead to stroke. Blindness is also possible. Giant cell arteritis usually occurs in people older than 50.

Brain Blood Clot

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Remember Hillary Clinton’s stay in a hospital in 2013? She was treated for a blood clot in the head. They range from easy to treat to deadly, depending on where the clot is located. Blood clots in the brain can form very quickly. When it’s in one or more arteries that supply blood to the heart, it can cause a heart attack. They can also result in a stroke.

Swelling in the Brain

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Encephalitis, inflammation of the brain but not cancer, can also be a cause of headaches, Dr. Kraveka says. You will experience unpredictable and persistent headaches that usually come with poor vision and sensitivity to light, she adds. The condition can also cause fever, confusion and seizures.

Signs a Headache Can Be Life-Threatening