Behind the Double Misery of Headache and Nausea

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A headache doubled with nausea could come from something simple, like low blood sugar, or it may indicate a serious condition.
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Headaches are miserable enough on their own, but some people get a double-whammy with a headache and nausea. The cause of both symptoms is often headache-related. Sometimes, though, another health problem is to blame, ranging from easy-to-fix low blood sugar to far more challenging ailments.

Consider these potential causes of a headache-and-nausea combo:

Migraines

Many people worry that they have a brain tumor if they have a headache with nausea, but migraine is often the culprit.

"Migraines are very common in the population — about one in five women and 6 percent of men have migraine," says Maher Fakhouri, MD, a neurologist at Detroit Medical Center's Harper University Hospital and an associate professor of neurology at Wayne State University in Detroit. "Symptoms [of a migraine] are a more severe headache, nausea and light sensitivity, and these headaches can be debilitating."

A migraine may make areas of the brain that control nausea more active. However, he adds that headaches with nausea are less common with other types of headaches, such as tension headaches.

Read more: How to Get Rid of Headaches Without Medicine

There are a number of ways to treat migraine. The simplest is to rest in a quiet, darkened room, according to the National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke (NINDS). Pain medication, especially one that also contains caffeine, can help treat symptoms once they've started. There are also medications that can prevent migraines.

Low Blood Sugar

Your blood sugar level can drop for a number of reasons. One is going too long without food. Others include taking too much diabetes medication or increasing physical activity, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Signs you're experiencing low blood sugar include headache, nausea, feeling shaky, sweating, irritability and hunger.

Fortunately, low blood sugar is typically easy to treat with food or, if you have diabetes, a fast-acting source of sugar, such as fruit juice or glucose tablets, and a snack once your blood sugar levels have come back to normal.

Heat Exhaustion

Headache and nausea together can be symptoms of heat exhaustion, a heat-related illness that occurs before heatstroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

If you've been out in high heat, especially if you've been exercising in hot weather, and you're also having muscle cramps, feel as if you might faint and have cool, clammy skin, you might be experiencing heat exhaustion. The CDC advises moving to a cool place, loosening your clothes and sipping water until you feel better. If you throw up, your symptoms get worse or you still feel bad after an hour, get medical help right away.

Read more: Heat Stroke Symptoms and Side Effects

More Serious Concerns

Sometimes a headache and nausea are signs that something serious is wrong, such as an infection or a ruptured blood vessel in the brain.

One very serious cause of headache and nausea is a brain aneurysm, according to Keck Medicine of USC. A brain aneurysm occurs when there is a weakness in a blood vessel wall that bulges as blood moves through it. If the blood vessel wall gets weak enough, the aneurysm can burst.

If this occurs, you will feel a sudden, extremely painful headache. People have called it a thunderclap headache or the worst headache of their lives. Other symptoms are nausea, vomiting, weakness and drowsiness. A ruptured aneurysm is a medical emergency.

Infections also may sometimes result in headache and nausea. One such infection is meningitis, which causes inflammation in the membrane that covers your brain and spinal cord, according to Keck. If you have meningitis, you might also have a fever, stiff neck, vomiting or seizures. Meningitis can be difficult to diagnose. It's often treated with antibiotics, antivirals or antifungal medicines, NINDS states. Treatment may also include steroid medications and pain-relieving drugs.

Is This an Emergency?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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