It could be a throbbing migraine or a head-squeezing tension headache. When it comes, you want to know fast ways to relieve your headache. For most headaches, simple remedies work. They include over-the-counter (OTC) medications and steps you can take as soon as a headache starts.
Start With Prevention
By far, the most common headaches are tension headaches and migraines, according to Harvard Medical School. Tension headaches commonly cause pain on both sides of your head, making it feel like your head is in a vice. Migraines are even worse. They may cause throbbing pain on one side of your head, along with nausea and sensitivity to light. The simplest way to get rid of these headaches is to prevent them in the first place.
Tension headaches can occur when muscles contract or tense up, says the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). Many different factors may be involved in triggering migraines, says NLM. For both types, avoid stress. If you get migraines, learn your headache triggers and how to avoid them. Common triggers include bright lights, strong odors and certain foods.
Read more: 8 Surprising Things Giving You a Headache
OTC Meds to Help Headaches
The simplest way to get rid of a headache? Take an OTC headache medicine as soon as you feel a headache coming on, experts say.
"Combination medications are best," says Michael Doerrler, DO, an assistant professor of neurology and a headache specialist at Loyola University Medical Center in Chicago. "The basic medications are NSAIDs, acetaminophen and caffeine," he explains, citing Excedrin as an example of this kind of combination.
NSAIDs are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen and aspirin. Common brand names include Advil and Motrin. Acetaminophen is the generic version of Tylenol. Though they're all available over the counter, people with headaches shouldn't underestimate the pain-relieving power of these drugs.
A study published in JAMA in November 2017 found that, in more than 400 patients with moderate-to-severe pain treated in an emergency room, people given a combination of acetaminophen and ibuprofen did as well as those given a narcotic drug (opioid). The OTC combination drugs were the equivalent of two Advil along with two Tylenol.
Read more: Guys Can Get Migraines, Too
Try a Cup of Coffee
The reason some OTC headache medicines include caffeine is that caffeine helps headaches in two ways: It can increase your stomach's absorption of other pain relievers, and it has some pain-relieving properties of its own, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
"Your brain treats caffeine like a pain medication," explains Dr. Doerrler. "It has a direct effect on parts of the brain that sense pain. But you have to be careful. Too much caffeine can increase your tolerance. When you go too long without your caffeine, you can get a rebound headache."
Caffeine works best for migraine headaches because of a brain substance called adenosine. Adenosine goes up during a migraine attack and may cause blood vessels to swell in the brain. Caffeine blocks adenosine, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
What Else Can You Do?
"People with frequent headaches learn what works best for them," says Dr. Doerrler. "What works for one person may not work for another. For most people, getting to a dark, quiet place, lying down, eating a light snack and drinking some fluid seems to help. You should also avoid being too hot or too cold."
According to Harvard Medical School and Mayo Clinic, here are some other things you can do:
- Use a heating pad on your neck
- Take a warm bath or shower
- Do some deep breathing and meditation
- Use an ice pack on the throbbing part of your head
When to Seek Help
Some headaches should not be treated at home. If you have any of these headache symptoms, says Harvard Medical School, call your doctor:
- New headaches that start after age 50
- Unusually severe headaches
- Headaches that hurt more when you cough, move or bend over
- Headaches that get steadily worse
- Headaches with fever or stiff neck
- Headache that comes after a blow to the head
- Headaches that include any change in speech or vision
Dr. Doerrler warns that frequent use of NSAIDs or acetaminophen can be dangerous. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage, and NSAIDs have been linked to stroke and heart disease. "If you are treating your own headaches three or more times per week, ask for help from a headache specialist," he says. "You may need more than simple measures."
Is This an Emergency?
- Harvard Medical School: "Headache: When to Worry, What to Do"
- JAMA: “Effect of a Single Dose of Oral Opioid and Nonopioid Analgesics on Acute Extremity Pain in the Emergency Department"
- American Migraine Foundation: “Caffeine and Migraine”
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Tension Headache"
- NLM: "Migraine"