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If you have any of these symptoms or a severe headache, get medical attention right away.

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Headaches are a common complaint, affecting 50% to 75% of adults throughout the world, according to the World Health Organization. Although headaches are usually just minor annoyances, they can be a sign of a serious health problem, particularly if the pain is severe or persistent.

A sudden, severe headache may mean it’s time to call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately. If your head pain is caused by a serious health issue, your headache may be accompanied by one or more of these symptoms:

    • Blurred vision or loss of vision
    • Trouble maintaining your balance or walking
    • Numbness or weakness in any part of your body
    • Slurred speech
    • Confusion
    • Sagging on one side of your face
    • Fainting
    • Nausea
    • Vomiting
    • Dizziness
    • Seizures
    • Stiff neck
    • Bloody nose
    • Severe head pain after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing or participating in a strenuous activity
    • A fever between 102oF and 104oF
    • Difficulty hearing
    • Rash
    • Joint or muscle pain
    • Pain that wakes you up
    • A tender spot or bump on your head

Severe headaches can be a sign of the following serious health issues:

    • Stroke: A bad headache that develops suddenly could be a sign of a stroke, a condition that occurs when blood flow to your brain is interrupted. In addition to a headache, you may also notice numbness or weakness in an arm or leg, slurred speech, confusion or difficulty walking.
    • Meningitis: Is your head pain accompanied by a fever, stiff neck and a rash? You could have meningitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
    • Aneurysm: If you’re experiencing the worst headache you’ve ever had in your life, an aneurysm might be responsible. An aneurysm occurs due to a bulging weak spot in an artery. Burst aneurysms can cause brain damage, blindness, memory problems and even death.
    • Head Injuries: A concussion or brain hemorrhage following a fall or blow to the head could be responsible for your severe headache.
    • Brain Tumor: When a character on a TV show has a bad headache, viewers know a brain tumor is the most likely cause. Fortunately, brain tumors happen much less often in real life than they do on TV. In addition to severe headaches, brain tumors or brain cancer can cause nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, vision loss, dizziness and personality changes.
    • High Blood Pressure: Severe headaches can occur in a hypertensive crisis, a condition that happens when a sudden increase in blood pressure increases pressure in your head. An intense headache may also be a sign of preeclampsia, a condition that causes blood pressure to rise dangerously high in pregnant women.
    • Heatstroke: If you experience a severe headache after spending time outdoors on a hot day, heatstroke may be the culprit. Other heatstroke symptoms include dizziness, nausea, vomiting, cramping muscles and lack of sweat.

Don’t wait to seek emergency care if you have a severe headache, especially if it’s accompanied by the symptoms listed above. If the pain is caused by a serious health condition, delaying treatment may be the difference between life and death.

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Date Last Reviewed: April 14, 2021

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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