Is Your Headache A Sign Of A More Serious Illness?

A woman with a headache touching her forehead( — Sometimes a headache is more than a headache. In fact, a headache can be an early warning sign of more complicated health issues such as stroke, infection, or high blood pressure.

When You Should Call Your Doctor

The American Headache Society provides a good way to know when to call your doctor. Remember the word “SNOOP,” which stands for:

  • Systemic Symptoms. In addition to a headache, you feel symptoms in other parts of your body. This could be a fever, loss of appetite, or weight loss. It also stands for Secondary Risk Factors, so if you have a headache in addition to HIV or cancer, call your doctor immediately.
  • Neurologic Symptoms. These symptoms include confusion, blurry vision, personality changes, weakness on one side of the body, numbness, or sharp facial pain.
  • Onset. This means that the headache happens suddenly, with no warning. Sometimes these are called “thunderclap” headaches. This can occur when headaches are caused by bleeding in the brain.
  • Older. If you are older than 50 and experience a new or progressive headache, call your doctor. You could have giant cell arteritis (an inflammation of the arteries in the face) or a brain tumor.
  • Progression. There is cause for concern if it is significantly different than your other headaches, if headaches are happening more often, or it is the worst headache you have ever had.

Other serious causes of headaches include:

  • Stiff neck, fever, and rash. They might indicate meningitis or other infections.
  • Elevated blood pressure. It can also cause headaches, and can occur if you have never been diagnosed with high blood pressure, or when you have been diagnosed and your blood pressure gets out of control.

“If your headache is bad, new, or changing, see somebody,” says Stephen D. Silberstein, MD, director of the Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and past president of the American Headache Society.

Headache: Is It a Stroke?

When the circulation of blood and oxygen to the brain is interrupted (for various reasons), a stroke occurs. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the symptoms of a stroke are:

  • Sudden weakness or numbness, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion.
  • Sudden trouble speaking or understanding speech.
  • Sudden difficulty seeing from one or both eyes.
  • Sudden dizziness, loss of balance, or difficulty walking.
  • Sudden severe headache with no obvious cause.

The National Stroke Association suggests remembering “FAST” — a quick test to determine if someone should seek help for a stroke.

  • Face. Does your face droop when you smile?
  • Arm. Does one arm drift downward if you try to raise both arms?
  • Speech. Does your speech sound slurred?
  • Time. If you or someone else has these signs, call 911.

If you experience any of the above symptoms, call your doctor or 911 immediately.

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