When you have a headache, you can treat it in a lot of different ways. Depending on the size and type of your headache, your choices could range from over-the-counter medications to prescriptions and more.
Headaches are one of the most common illnesses people have. So, when you start feeling that familiar pain and reach for the medicine cabinet, here’s what to keep in mind.
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Types of Headaches
Headaches aren’t a one-size-fits-all illness. They can vary in many different ways — from the cause, to how bad the pain is, to where you feel the pain. Common types of headaches include:
- Tension headaches: These are the most common and treatable headaches, typically caused by stress. They are usually a steady ache, like a tight band around your head. The pain is usually mild to moderate.
- Sinus headaches: Occurring after a sinus infection, symptoms include pain in the head and face and sinus drainage. These only happen in connection with sinus infections; what most people think of as a sinus headache actually is a tension headache, migraine, or cluster headache.
- Cluster headaches: A series of headaches that occur on one side of the head and often include severe, stabbing pain around or behind one eye.
- Migraines: A moderate to severe headache that usually comes with a throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head. Many people suffer from chronic migraines. In addition to the head pain, you may have other symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, or smells.
You may experience headaches from other causes as well — after a trauma, for instance, or from medication overuse.
What Headache Medicine Should I Take?
Depending on your symptoms and your type of headache, you can take many different medications. Over-the-counter (OTC) medications often can relieve minor headaches. For stronger, more frequent headaches, you may need a prescription.
Over-the-counter headache medicines
OTC medications can relieve the symptoms of many mild to moderate headaches, like tension headaches. The most common OTC headache medications include:
- Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol).
- Aspirin (such as Bayer).
- Ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin).
- Naproxen (such as Aleve).
You should not take OTC medicines for headaches more than two days a week. Taking medication too often can lead to other problems, like medicine-overuse headaches. Read the product label and take the medicine as directed, and don’t mix medications.
If you have a health condition that could cause problems with certain OTC medications — such as bleeding problems, kidney disorders, or liver disorders — talk to your doctor about alternatives.
Also, OTC medicines may not be appropriate for more severe headaches, such as cluster headaches.
Prescription headache medicine
If you suffer from severe and/or chronic headaches, you may need to talk to your doctor about getting a prescription. Depending on the specific medicine, they may include pills, nasal sprays, shots, or intravenous (IV) medications.
Common prescriptions for headaches include:
- 5-HT agonists.
- Calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) agonists.
- Ergotamine or ergotamine derivatives.
If you are experiencing other symptoms with your headache—such as nausea or sinus overflow—your doctor may prescribe or recommend other medications as well. If another health issue is causing your headache — such as menstrual headaches or trauma-related headaches — that may require other medications as well.
It’s important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and any other related conditions to find the right treatment plan.
Preventive headache medicines
If you suffer from chronic headaches or migraines, if they’re severe, or if they’re affecting your everyday life, you may want to talk to your doctor about preventive medicines.
Common prevention medicines include:
- Antianxiety medications.
- Anticonvulsant or antiseizure drugs.
- Botox (for migraines).
- Blood pressure medications (such as beta-blockers).
- CGRP monoclonal antibodies.
- Muscle relaxers.
Another way to prevent headaches is to recognize your triggers and avoid them as much as possible. Headache triggers can include:
- Stress, anxiety, or other mental health conditions.
- High blood pressure.
- Lack of sleep/change in sleep schedule.
- Medication/medication overuse.
- Diet (eating certain foods).
- Hunger or dehydration.
If you’re suffering from headaches and want to find relief, talk to your doctor about what treatment makes the most sense for you.
UPMC Primary Care treats a wide spectrum of disorders, including chronic and severe headache conditions. To find a provider near you, visit our website.
American Family Physician, Tension-Type Headache. Link
American Migraine Foundation, Over-the-Counter Migraine Medication. Link
American Migraine Foundation, Top 10 Migraine Triggers and How to Avoid Them. Link
Association of Migraine Disorders, Migraine Treatments. Link
National Headache Foundation, The Complete Headache Chart. Link
National Library of Medicine, Headache. Link
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