If you look through medical books, you'll see headaches can be a symptom in thousands of different conditions. Most severe headaches are migraines - they're severe, but they eventually go away. But sometimes a severe headache is a sign of a life-threatening problem. The trick is knowing what to look for.

Headaches that start at the age of 50 should not be taken for granted. As you get older, there are certain diseases that are more likely to occur, so after age 50 there is giant cell arthritis, which is an inflammation of the blood vessels in the scalp, there's, a brain tumors are more common after that age, strokes are more common, after that age other medicals conditions tend to occur more commonly.

Doctors look for certain warning signs that a headache may be a symptom of a more serious illness. They are:

  • Headaches starting at age 50. Someone who says they're having "the most severe headache of their life"

  • A change in a person's usual headache pattern. Numbness or weakness occurs with a headache.

  • Headaches associated with sex, coughing, straining, or lifting.

    If a patient has one of these warning signs, they should call their doctor, even if they've had migraines in the past.

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    Potential Headache Triggers

    • Alcoholic drinks (especially red wine)

    • Foods containing a chemical called "tyramine" (for example, aged cheeses, sour cream, and yogurt)

    • Chocolate

    • Dairy products

    • Foods with additives such as nitrites, MSG, or aspartame.

    • A change in caffeine intake, either up or down, can also trigger migraine.

    • Other lifestyle factors, such as change in sleep habits and even overuse of headache medicines, may sometimes provoke migraines, as can environmental factors, such as change in weather or temperature, high altitudes, bright or fluorescent lights or sunlight, loud noises and strong odors.


    Is It a Migraine?

    • Location of pain: one or both sides of head

    • Duration of pain: 4 to 72 hours

    • Severity of pain: mild, moderate or severe

    • Nausea, sensitivity to light, sound, odors: common

    • Redness or tearing of eyes; stuffy or runny nose: sometimes

    When You Should Call a Doctor

    When a headache:

    • Appears suddenly and is more severe and different from past headaches, or worsens over time

    • Is triggered by exertion, coughing, or bending.

    • Is linked with a stiff neck and fever.

    • Is accompanied by disturbed vision or speech or numbness, tingling or weakness in a part of the body.

    • Makes it difficult for you to think and remember.

    • Causes severe vomiting.

    • Follows a head injury.

    Source: http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/1998/398_pain.html (U.S. Food and Drug Administration).