What is it?

When a person has a headache, the nerves in the scalp, face, mouth, throat, the muscles of the head or the blood vessels found along the surface and at the base of the brain can hurt.

While there are 150 different types of headaches, the two most common types are tension and migraine1.

Tension headaches appear to involve the tightening or tensing of facial and neck muscles.

Migraines occur when the arteries in the head narrow and then dilate. They are caused by changes in brain chemistry.

Common causes of headache include:

  • Stress
  • Fatigue
  • Dental problems
  • Missed meals
  • Hormonal changes
  • Changes in barometric pressure or altitude
  • Alcohol
  • Food
    • Chocolate, Cheese, Onions, Citrus, Eggplant, Bay leaf, Chili, Cinnamon, Fried or fatty foods, Pickled or processed foods
  • Certain food additives
    • MSG and coloring or flavor enhancers
  • Caffeine
  • Eye strain
  • Muscle tension

Who is affected?

It is estimated that between 40 and 50 million Americans suffer from chronic and/or severe headaches1. More than $400 million is spent on OTC pain relievers each year2.

What are the symptoms?

Tension headaches produce a dull ache on both sides of the head like a tight band across the head.

Migraines produce moderate to severe pounding or throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head. Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and/or sounds can often accompany migraines.

What can I do to prevent and treat it?

Headaches can be managed with the following:

  • Exercise,
  • Eliminating caffeine and certain foods from the diet,
  • Relaxation and stress reduction, such as closing your eyes, sitting quietly, or deep breathing.

    For more information, read: "RELAX! Take Time to De-Stress" PDF Icon.

OTC medications

There are several different groups of OTC pain relievers available:

  • Aspirin products. Children and teenagers with a cold or the flu should not receive salicylates (aspirin) because of the resulting increased risk of developing Reye syndrome.

  • Acetaminophen products. Acetaminophen does not irritate the stomach and is less likely to cause long-term side effects than aspirin. People with liver disease or those taking blood - thinning medicines or NSAIDs should use acetaminophen with caution and after consulting with a doctor.

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium products. NSAIDs can cause stomach irritation and can adversely interact with other drugs. People over age 65 and anyone with a history of ulcers or gastrointestinal bleeding should use NSAIDs with caution and only after consulting with a doctor.

  • Combination products which include caffeine.

Important additional information

  • It is important to follow manufacturer directions when taking OTC pain medication in order to avoid rebound (reoccurring) headaches. Rebound headaches occur from overuse of pain relievers on a daily or very frequent basis)
  • If you suffer from chronic headaches, keep a diary to determine what triggers your headache. To help identify patterns list the following:
    • What you eat
    • Your level of stress
    • Stress triggers, etc.
    • When headaches occur
  • Some types of headaches are signals of more serious disorders. Consult a medical professional immediately if you experience any of the following symptoms2:
    • Sudden, severe headache (worst headache of your life)
    • Convulsions
    • Confusion or loss of consciousness
    • Headache following a blow to the head
    • Headache following a tick bite
    • Pain in the eye or ear
    • Persistent headache in a person who was previously headache free
    • Recurring headache in children
    • Fever or stiff neck
    • Interferes with normal life

The following are examples of OTC medications that can be used to treat headaches:

Symptom relief Helpful medications Active ingredients* to look for in generic and name brand OTC products
Relieve headaches and muscle aches Pain Reliever Ibuprofen
Example: Advil®

Naproxen Sodium

Acetylsalicylic acid


* Active ingredients: ingredients in a medication that produce a therapeutic response

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1 Wyeth, "Get a Head Start on Preventing Headaches , " OTC Self-Care Connection
2 The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892

Note: This information is intended to provide readers with health information. The information provided is not a substitute for consultation with a healthcare provider. Brand names included on this Web page are provided for examples only. Their inclusion does not mean that they are endorsed by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina.