UT University Health Services


Headaches have many causes. Most headaches are merely inconveniences, but in rare instances, they can be caused by life-threatening conditions that require immediate medical attention. The self-care advice that follows relates only to headaches that can be managed safely at home. These include stable, well-controlled migraines or headaches caused by tension, eye strain, sinus pressure, or minor bumps to your head.

Signs and Symptoms

Tension headaches
  • Often associated with prolonged reading, computer work, or a heavy or ill-fitting backpack
  • Typically a dull ache in your forehead, neck, or temples
  • Pain, stiffness, or spasms in the muscles of your neck or upper body
Eye-strain headaches
  • Often associated with prolonged reading or work at a computer
  • Typically a dull headache in your forehead or an ache or feeling of pressure around your eyes
Sinus headaches
  • Often associated with seasonal allergies or colds
  • Pain in your forehead and tenderness and pain over your cheekbones and upper teeth that usually gets worse when you bend over
Migraine headaches Symptoms may differ from person to person, but a person often has the same symptoms with each migraine.
  • Pain, often affecting the same area of the head
  • May have an "aura" preceding the headache such as seeing white spots, flashing lights, or dark spots; numbness in various parts of your body; or less commonly, strange smells or tastes
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds, and/or smells
  • Can be caused by certain "triggers" such as foods (e.g. chocolate, hot dogs, red wine), odors (e.g. perfumes, air fresheners), and/or lack of sleep

What You Can Do about Headaches

For any type of headache pain, take an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. If you've had any injury to your head, take acetaminophen only. Other pain relievers can thin your blood, worsening any bleeding that may be occurring in the brain.

For tension headaches:

  • Use a heating pad or hot water bottle on a tense neck.
  • Take hot showers. Don't exceed 20 minutes at a time.
  • Rub your temples and the back of your head.
  • Get a neck and shoulder massage.
  • Take frequent, short breaks when studying or working.
  • Ensure that your computer/work station is ergonomically sound.
  • Learn to manage stress.

For eye-strain headaches:

  • Study/work in a well-lit area.
  • Reduce or eliminate computer screen glare.
  • Look up from reading or computer work every few minutes and focus on a distant object for several seconds to relax your eye muscles.
  • Get an eye exam. You might need contacts or glasses or a change in your current prescription.

For sinus headaches:

  • Take an OTC decongestant or use an OTC decongestant nasal spray. To avoid dependence, don't use decongestant sprays for more than three days in a row. You can also use OTC saline nasal sprays, drops, or washes any time for as long as needed. (Saline rinse is not habit-forming.) To make them at home dissolve 1/4 teaspoon of salt in 8 ounces of warm water. Sniff a couple of drops in each nostril.
  • For recurrent sinus headaches, use a humidifier in your home, especially in your bedroom, to keep the air moist. Clean it frequently.

For Migraine Headaches

  • Avoid migraine triggers, if you know them.
  • Take an OTC migraine medication, if appropriate.
  • Use an ice pack for no longer than 15 minutes at a time. Put a cloth, such as a thin towel, between the ice pack and your skin to prevent skin damage.
  • Massage the affected area.
  • Rest in a dark, quiet place.
  • Sleep.

Call the UHS Nurse Advice Line at (512) 475-6877 (NURS) if you have any of the following:

  • A headache that is "the worst headache of your life"
  • A headache with fever and difficulty bending your neck
  • A severe, sudden, "thunderclap" headache, even if it lessens over time. This could indicate the impending rupture of a blood vessel in your brain.
  • Headaches caused or worsened by straining or physical exertion like heavy lifting
  • Headaches that worsen in frequency and/or severity over time
  • Headaches that wake you at night or severe headaches upon rising in the morning
  • Headaches associated with visual changes and/or nausea or vomiting, unless you've been diagnosed with migraines for which these symptoms are typical for you
  • Headaches associated with even minor head trauma if there has been any loss of consciousness, amnesia, confusion, nausea, blurred vision, weakness, or numbness in any part of the body
  • A sinus headache that lasts for more than a week and is not eased by self-care measures
  • Your migraines become more frequent or symptoms change or get more severe
  • Migraines with an aura if you use any type of birth control method that contains estrogen.

Call 911 or go directly to an emergency room if you have any of the following:

  • Headaches associated with slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, weakness, or persistent numbness or tingling in any part of your body
  • Severe headache and fever with the development of dark spots (much like bruises) of any size on your skin. This can be a sign of meningococcal disease, which progresses rapidly and is potentially fatal.
  • Seizure or fainting
  • A sudden headache associated with loss of consciousness

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Published by RelayHealth.
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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