Symptoms of a Headache

Back to the Basics: Common Symptoms

Symptoms of a Headache
GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

The symptoms of a headache are more than just head pain and depend on the type of headache a person is having. For some people, its those "other" symptoms, like nausea or sensitivity to light, that cause the most discomfort.

Let's investigate the common symptoms of primary headaches — headaches that occur on their own and are not due to an underlying medical condition.

Symptoms of a Migraine

  • throbbing or pulsating head pain, usually on one side of the head, but may be on both
  • pain is worse with physical activity
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sensitivity to light, called photophobia
  • sensitivity to sound, called phonophobia
  • premonitory phase that begins up to 2 days before the migraine and is associated with emotional changes, yawning, urinary frequency, fluid retention, stiff neck, feeling thirsty, or having food cravings
  • aura symptoms, like vision  changes, numbness and tingling, dizziness, confusion, and/or language problelms, like difficulty finding words
  • increased sense of smell
  • difficulty concentrating
  • emotional distress
  • postdrome phase characterzied by fatigue, irritability, or euphoria

Symptoms of a Tension Headache

  • aching, tightening or pressure sensation on both sides of the head, starting at the forehead
  • sense of fullness in the head
  • head pain last 30 minutes to 7 days
  • head pain usually starts at some point during the day, then increases slowly, and then remains stable
  • radiation of pain to neck and/or shoulders
  • loss of appetite
  • sensitivity to light or sound, but not both
  • pain is not worse with physical activity, as in migraines

Symptoms of a Cluster Headache

  • severely painful headache usually centered around the eye or temple — often described as piercing, like a knife
  • headache occurs in short bursts, 45 to 90 minutes
  • runny nose (on the same side as the head pain)
  • watery eye (on the same side as the head pain)
  • swelling of the face (on the same side as the head pain)
  • swelling of the eyelid (on the same side as the head pain)
  • facial flushing or sweating
  • agitated, restless
  • migraine-like symptoms may occur: nausea, aura, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound

What Should I Do?

If you have a headache and are unsure about the trigger or diagnosis, be sure to talk with your doctor. Be aware of headache warning signs, like a new headache that you have never had before, and seek medical attention.


American Headache Society. Cluster Headache. Retrieved October 28th 2015.

American Headache Society. (2011). Tension-type Headache — The Basics. Retrieved October 28th 2015.

Buchholz, David & Reich, Stephen G (foreword). Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program For Taking Charge of Your Pain. New York: Workman, 2002.

Chowdhury D. Tension type headache. Ann Indian Acad Neurol. 2012 Aug;15(Suppl 1):S83-S88.

Friedman D. American Headache Society: Ten Things That You and Your Patients With Migraine Should Know Retrieved October 28th 2015.

Continue Reading