Although severe headaches are not necessarily harmful, they can be a sign of a life-threatening condition. Early diagnosis, on the other hand, allows a doctor to address the underlying problem and lessen the risk of consequences.
According to the journal PLOS ONE, roughly 0.5–4.5 percent of people who seek care at an emergency room do so for a headache that isn’t connected to trauma.
The many causes and symptoms of potentially deadly headaches are discussed in this article. It also considers when someone should seek medical assistance.
The following are some indications that suggest a person should seek medical attention for a headache right away:
- a constant headache that always occurs in the same location
- associated neurological symptoms, such as changes in vision, numbness or weakness on one side of the body, or speech changes
- accompanying red and painful eye
- a severe headache that becomes unbearable within seconds to minutes
- a headache that begins despite the person having no history of headache or migraine
- a significant increase in the frequency of headaches or a change in the headache’s characteristics
- a headache that starts or changes intensity when changing position
- a headache that begins when a person coughs, sneezes, or strains themselves
- a headache that does not go away
- a headache that develops after 50 years of age
- a headache that occurs with symptoms including fever, chills, night sweats, and unexpected weight loss
If a person has any of these symptoms, they should seek medical help right once.
If you have any of the following symptoms, you should seek medical attention right once.
- a severe headache and they have a history of immunosuppression due to a medical condition such as HIV or cancer
- the sudden onset of severe, unbearable pain
- visual disturbances unrelated to migraine
- an altered mental state
- facial drooping or an inability to move one side of the body
If a person notices any of these signs or symptoms, they should dial 911 for immediate medical help. They should not attempt to get to the emergency department on their own.
A headache might signify a variety of serious medical conditions. This is not, however, the only symptom that a person may encounter.
Symptoms, concerns, and treatment options for emergency headache conditions are listed below.
The parts that follow go through some of the emergency reasons why a person might need to visit a doctor for a headache.
Heat exhaustion and heatstroke
As a result of the excessive loss of salt and water, a person suffers from heat exhaustion. Excessive sweating is usually the cause of this.
Among the signs and symptoms are:
- raised body temperature
- decreased output of urine
- heavy sweating
Heat exhaustion is not dangerous if a person cools down within 30 minutes, according to the National Health Service (NHS) of the United Kingdom . It can, however, progress to heatstroke, which is a medical emergency.
Heatstroke occurs when the body’s ability to regulate temperature is compromised. When a person suffers from heatstroke, their temperature can climb to dangerously high levels in as little as 10–15 minutes. If left untreated, it can be lethal.
The following are some of the signs and symptoms of heat stroke:
- profuse sweating
- very high body temperature
- confusion, slurred speech
- altered mental state
- hot, dry skin
Anyone who spots someone close displaying the symptoms of heatstroke should phone 911 for help right away.
The person should then be moved to a shaded, cooler environment and the outer layers of clothing removed.
If you’re suffering from heat exhaustion, you should:
- move to a cool place
- lie down and slightly raise their feet
- drink plenty of water
Cool water should be sprayed or sponged on the skin for both heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
They might circulate air using a fan to help with cooling. Cooling can be achieved by applying cold, damp towels or ice to the head, armpits, or groin.
When abnormal cells in the brain proliferate and divide, a brain tumor develops. The tumor’s existence can produce a variety of symptoms, including headaches, because the skull does not allow for extensive brain enlargement.
Headaches might indicate the progression of a brain tumor. Seizures are also a possibility for certain people.
The following are the most prevalent brain tumor symptoms among people who go to the emergency department, in addition to headaches:
- an altered mental state
- visual changes
- dizziness or falls
Depending on where the tumor is located, the precise symptoms may differ.
Treatment is determined on the tumor’s location and whether or not it has spread. Surgical removal, radiation, or chemotherapy may be used to diminish the tumor.
Carbon monoxide poisoning
Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas produced when fuel is burned in a car, stove, small engine, lantern, grill, fireplace, gas range cooker, or furnace.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 20,000 people visit the emergency department each year as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning (CDC).
Carbon monoxide attracts cells more strongly than oxygen in the circulation. As a result, carbon monoxide molecules can take the place of oxygen, resulting in asphyxia and death.
Carbon monoxide poisoning can also cause the following symptoms:
- chest pain
Some people who are sleeping or who have consumed alcohol may not perceive symptoms, increasing the risk of death from carbon monoxide poisoning.
After being exposed to carbon monoxide, people should get outside as soon as possible and phone 911.
Carbon monoxide poisoning will be treated with oxygen and a medicine called methylene blue, which will be administered through an intravenous (IV) line.
Dissection of the carotid artery
According to a case study published in the journal BMJ Case Reports, 68 percent of people with carotid artery dissection will develop headaches.
A rupture in the layers of one of the carotid arteries that carry blood to the brain causes the condition. Blood might pool inside the layers of the artery as a result.
A dissection of the carotid artery can result in a stroke, brain damage, or death.
According to a case report published in BMJ Case Reports, the headache caused by carotid artery dissection usually only affects one side of the head.
Neck discomfort, speech abnormalities, and a little drooping of one eye are all possible symptoms.
Treatment will be determined by the symptoms and the location of the dissection in the carotid artery. Typical options include:
- taking blood-thinning medications
- undergoing endovascular treatment
- undergoing surgery
A concussion is a type of brain damage that happens when the head is struck or jolted. The movement alters the location of the brain in the skull, potentially causing brain cell injury.
If a person does not receive therapy, brain damage, seizures, and death may result.
Concussion symptoms include headaches and neck discomfort.
Other signs and symptoms include:
- nausea or vomiting
- ringing in the ears
- weakness, numbness, or decreased coordination
- sensitivity to noise or light
- slurred speech
Rest and physical activity restriction are part of the treatment plan to allow the brain to repair.
It’s also critical to address the symptoms. A general care physician or a neurologist, for example, should treat a headache promptly, and a psychiatrist should address any sadness or anxiety as soon as feasible.
If a person has a hematoma, which is a collection of blood outside of a blood artery, surgery to remove or shrink it may be required.
According to the American Heart Association, a hypertensive crisis occurs when a person’s systolic blood pressure is more than 180 mm Hg or their diastolic blood pressure is greater than 120 mm Hg (AHA).
A hypertensive crisis can result in life-threatening conditions such as stroke, heart attack, pulmonary edema, or an aortic dissection if not treated promptly.
According to a long-term research published in the American Journal of Hypertension, a headache is a typical symptom of high blood pressure.
Shortness of breath, nosebleeds, and severe anxiety are all possible symptoms.
A person with a hypertensive emergency may be admitted to the hospital by a doctor.
Beta-blockers, thiazide diuretics, angiotensin receptor blockers, and angiotensin-converting enzymes are some of the drugs used to treat hypertension.
Learn more about managing hypertension here.
Meningitis is an infection of the brain’s outer layers. It can be caused by an infection in the inner ear, sinuses, or elsewhere in the body.
Meningitis left untreated can progress to sepsis, a life-threatening illness that causes the body’s organs to shut down.
Meningitis symptoms include, in addition to a headache:
- a stiff neck
- sensitivity to light
Antibiotics are commonly used to treat meningitis.
Ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes are the two most common forms of stroke. When a blood clot lodges in an artery in the brain, it can cause an ischemic stroke. Bleeding in the brain can cause a hemorrhagic stroke.
A person can acquire major disability or die if a doctor fails to treat a stroke immediately. Anyone who has had a stroke should seek medical help right away.
Additional signs and symptoms include:
- facial drooping
- changes in the person’s mental state
- weakness on one side of the body
- numbness on one side of the body
- speech changes
The kind of stroke determines the treatment.
Medications to break up a clot and surgery to remove a clot or repair a broken blood artery are two options.
Learn more about the treatments for stroke here.
During a pregnancy
People should not overlook headaches when pregnant since they might suggest a potentially dangerous condition that could harm their health or that of their kid.
The following are some of these conditions:
After 20 weeks of pregnancy, this condition causes high blood pressure of higher than 140/90 mm Hg. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), it can also induce edema and proteinuria, or the presence of protein in the urine .
Eclampsia, a life-threatening condition, can develop from preeclampsia. HELLP syndrome is a condition that can result from it. Hemolysis, high liver enzymes, and low platelet counts are abbreviated as HELLP.
Preeclampsia can also occur within the first few weeks after giving birth.
Some symptoms, in addition to a headache, include:
- high blood pressure
- vision changes
- pain in the upper abdomen
A doctor may advise delivering the baby if the pregnancy is 37 weeks or longer.
Pregnancies that aren’t far advanced may necessitate more regular monitoring, bed rest, blood pressure therapies, and drugs to assist speed up fetal lung development and facilitate an earlier birth.
Eclampsia is a severe form of pregnancy hypertension that can cause convulsions or put a woman into a coma. It is potentially fatal to both the pregnant woman and the fetus. HELLP syndrome can also occur as a result of it.
Symptoms may include, in addition to a headache:
- high blood pressure
- a coma
- sensitivity to light
To avoid life-threatening consequences, immediate action is required.
Taking medicines to regulate blood pressure and injecting magnesium sulfate via an IV line to lessen the risk of seizures are two examples.
Doctors may also try all they can to deliver the baby.
If a person received an epidural or spinal anesthetic for pain management, they may develop a severe headache known as a postdural puncture headache (PDPH) in the early postpartum period.
However, according to a 2017 report, 85 percent of PDPH patients resolve on their own with conservative therapy, which includes:
- caffeine consumption
- bed rest
- analgesic medications
A blood patch may also be recommended by a doctor as a therapy option.
Visit our dedicated site for more evidence-based headache and migraine information.
Severe headaches in children might also be an indication of a medical emergency.
These are some of them:
Toddlers and babies may have distinct concussion symptoms than adults, according to the CDC. These can include refusal to breastfeed or eat, constant weeping, and an inability to be consoled, in addition to a headache.
According to a 2017 article, people under the age of 16 should not use aspirin since it increases the risk of bleeding and a condition called Reye’s syndrome.
Meningitis symptoms in infants and neonates include headaches, lethargy, irritability, feeding difficulties, and vomiting. Their head may appear to protrude through the soft place at times.
A doctor will examine the headache to discover if it is primary or secondary. A main headache isn’t a sign of something else. Other, underlying conditions might cause secondary headaches. A headache journal might help you figure out what causes primary headaches, such as certain foods or activities.
When a person is examined for headaches, a healthcare expert will collect a complete medical history. They’ll also inquire about the frequency, intensity, and location of the headaches in issue.
Imaging and other diagnostic technologies may aid the doctor in determining the source of headache discomfort.
The following are some possibilities:
- erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), a blood test that indicates inflammation
- MRI scan
- CT scan
- digital subtraction angiography, which uses X-ray and iodine to map blood vessels in the brain
- spinal tap, which can determine if infection is present or if there is bleeding in the brain
A headache may suggest an emergency situation, despite the fact that it is normally harmless.
If a person is unclear if their headache is a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition, they should seek immediate medical help.
A doctor can assess their condition and make therapy recommendations to alleviate their pain and address any underlying causes.