News & Events

Headaches: A Real Excuse or Not?

Kim Christoff, Pharmacist

The age old excuse “I have a headache” may carry more merit than many give it! Headaches are one of the most common disorders affecting Americans. There are many causes of headaches and research is ongoing.  Although 99 percent of headaches (primary headaches) don’t reflect any serious underlying condition, 1 percent of headaches (secondary headaches) are a sign of a much more serious medical condition. It is important to know when it is time to seek medical attention.

Primary headaches
Primary headaches have four major categories: chronic daily headaches (CDH), tension headaches, cluster headaches and migraine headaches. Most primary headache suffers have many options for non-prescription medications which can be recommended by a pharmacist. 

Primary headaches often are associated with triggers and many patients are able to identify what triggers their headaches. Triggers can include things such as caffeine, aspartame, MSG, nitrates/nitrites, ice cream, chocolate, stress, sexual activity, altitude changes, seasons and sleep issues. By avoiding triggers, the frequency and intensity of headaches are lessened.  

Secondary headaches
Secondary headaches result from another medical condition or outside influence on the body. These influences include infection, stroke, hemorrhage, brain tumors, trauma, TMJ, carbon monoxide and other medications and conditions. Secondary headaches should not be ignored or left untreated because they often can be early indicators of a much larger medical condition. A person should not try to self-treat secondary headaches and should seek immediate medical attention.

Primary or secondary headache
Often it is difficult to determine when a headache is secondary or not. Some questions to consider include:

  • Is this sudden and/or first headache ever
  • Is this the most painful headache experienced
  • Did it come on quickly and last an hour or more
  • Is there a fever present as well
  • Is there lessened awareness of surroundings
  • Has mental function decreased
  • Is there sensitivity to light with stiff neck/nausea/vomiting/loss of consciousness
  • Is the sufferer under the age of 7 or over the age of 60
  • Is the sufferer pregnant or just had a baby
  • Did the headache awaken the sufferer
  • Has there been recent trauma or injury
  • Is the headache worse when at home or other places like at the office

If the answer is yes to one or more of the above questions, it could indicate a more serious medical condition.           

Treating headaches
The treatment of headaches is specific to each person; what works for one person may not work for another. Over-the-counter medications are available to help ease headaches. A pharmacist can help sufferers determine what may be their best remedy. Headache-relief ingredients available include aspirin, acetaminophen, caffeine, naproxen, ibuprofen and buffers. Headaches can often be lessened by controlling diet and exercise. Additionally, prescription medications are available.

If adults have been self-treating a headache for more than 10 days or a child for three to five days without relief, a physician should be consulted. Additionally, for those who have frequent, bothersome headaches, seeing their healthcare provider to determine the type and cause may be helpful.       

Although there are many causes and treatments of headaches, it is important to remember that each person knows themselves. If your body is speaking to you through a headache, then stop, listen, respond, use that age-old excuse of “I have a headache” and seek a solution. Pharmacists can be a good starting place, but seeing your healthcare provider ultimately may be the best decision. 
Kim Christoff, R.Ph., is a pharmacist at FMC’s Flagstaff Pharmacy.