Regardless of age, everybody gets an occasional headache. Whether it’s from a stressful day at work, trouble getting a good night’s sleep, or drinking a little too much alcohol the night before, a headache can leave you feeling irritated and grumpy until you get some relief.
So how do you know when a headache needs medical attention? As with any health question you may have, if you have doubts or concerns about a medical issue, play it safe and see your doctor. Generally speaking, though, there are two main reasons to consult with your physician. First, it has been shown that persistent headaches, especially migraine headaches, can diminish quality of life.
Figuring out how much your quality of life is being affected is difficult because everybody is different and some people can tolerate pain or discomfort more than others. That said, if your headaches are frequent and severe enough that you can’t enjoy your favorite activities – like going for a walk outdoors, visiting with friends, or watching TV – then you should consider seeing your doctor.
The second reason, which is even more important for seniors, is that headaches could indicate a more serious health problem that needs to be addressed. For example, a sudden headache that might be mistaken for a migraine could indicate a stroke or mini-stroke. There are a couple of ways to tell the difference between a severe migraine and a headache that accompanies a stroke. First, if you’re suffering a stroke, the symptoms will come on suddenly and last a short time, usually less than 15 minutes. With migraines, on the other hand, symptoms build gradually and can last for hours or even days. A stroke is a dangerous health problem, so call 911 if you have any doubts.
Headaches can also accompany a head injury or head trauma that needs medical attention. Roughly one in three people older than 65 will experience a fall in any given year. Though rare, even a mild head injury can result in a subdural hematoma, which is an accumulation of blood that compresses brain tissue and can cause brain injury or death.
Still, another reason seniors get headaches is because they’re suffering from a shingles outbreak. While most outbreaks occur on the torso, it is also common for them to appear on the head and face, and when the outbreak is at its peak, the lesions are extremely painful. The lesions, which almost always appear on only one side of the body, last about seven to ten days before starting to heal. Unfortunately, some people continue to experience pain for months after the outbreak and may need medical assistance managing it.
If you develop a rash that consists of lesions in a clustered pattern, and they are itchy and a little painful at first and often tingle, the best action you can take is to see a doctor and ask for an antiviral medication within 72 hours. While this will not prevent the outbreak, the symptoms will be much less severe and will clear up faster.
If you think you are experiencing migraines, it’s important to remember that a migraine is a specific type of headache that’s very painful, is located on only one side, and appears without warning. They are usually triggered by excess stress, sleep issues, or loud noises, as well as hormonal changes in women or certain types of medications, especially those used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Fortunately, less than five percent of people over 70 years old experience migraines. Also, by that age, it only occurs in people who have already dealt with migraines.
For the most part, migraine treatment focuses on preventing them in the first place. If you know your triggers – chocolate and caffeine are common ones – try to avoid them. And if you do feel the symptoms coming on, try lying down and resting in a dark, quiet room with hot or cold compresses on your head. Small amounts of caffeine can also help, as well as both over-the-counter and prescription medications.