A Mnemonic to Identify Headache Warning Signs

A Mnemonic from the American Headache Society

When to Worry About Your Headaches
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The American Headache Society has a handy mnemonic device for remembering headache warning signs -- reasons to call your doctor right away. All you have to do is remember the mnemonic “SNOOP.”

S -- Systemic Symptoms

This refers to any symptoms, in addition to your headache, that affect the body as a whole. Some systemic symptoms include fevers, muscle pain, and weight loss. This “S” can also refer to secondary risk factors, like HIV or cancer.

For instance, if a person has cancer, a new headache could be a sign that the cancer has spread to the brain. 

N -- Neurological Signs or Symptoms

Any headaches associated with changes in cognition or mental functioning, or deficits in one or more areas of the body, like weakness or loss of sensation requires immediate medical attention. This could be an indication of a stroke, mass in the brain, or other vascular or autoimmune process in the nervous system.

O -- Onset

Onset refers to how fast a headache sets in. Headaches that hit suddenly and severely, without warning, also called thunderclap headaches, can be a sign of a stroke, especially a bleed in the brain known as a subarachnoid hemorrhage. If straining, coughing, or sexual activity causes a headache to appear, you should also discuss this with your healthcare provider.

O -- Older Age of Onset

If you are a bit older when you first start to experience headaches, you may actually have a more significant problem than simple migraines.

This is especially true if you are age 50 or older — one type of headache that can newly develop in middle-aged people is giant cell arteritis.

P -- Prior Headache History

Compare a current headache with headaches you have experienced in the past. If your headache pattern has changed, like become more severe in intensity, more frequent, or associated with new symptoms like fatigue, than please seek medical attention.

What Does This Mean for My Headache Health?

Aside from being painful and annoying, headaches are often just that -- headaches. They do not indicate that you absolutely have a more significant illness or condition. That being said,  taking the time to assess your headaches using the SNOOP mnemonic can give you peace of mind and a more organized way to classify your headaches.


American Headache Society: Primary Care Migraine Partnership. Retrieved December 24th 2015.

American Headache Society. Headache Diagnosis and Testing. Retrieved December 24th 2015.

M Levin. Teaching case: Chiari type I/cerebellar ectopia headaches: complete resolution following posterior fossa decompressive surgery. Headache. July/August 2008: 1146-9.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for advice, diagnosis, and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

Edited by Dr. Colleen Doherty, MD December 18th 2015.

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