What Causes Severe Headaches?

By Amy S. | Updated: Jun 18, 2020


Nearly half of the American population is affected by headaches. The dull, throbbing ache of a headache can range from mildly distracting to debilitating, and - in extreme cases - may even come with blind spots, nausea, and vomiting. When headaches are severe or constantly recurring, it's important to get them treated before they impair your personal and professional life. Treating tension headaches, sinus headaches, and migraines is much easier once the cause or trigger has been identified. Learn more about some of the most common causes of severe headaches.

What Causes Severe Headaches?


Dehydration is a prominent cause of regular headaches, especially those experienced after intense exercise. About two cups - or half a liter - of fluids should be consumed in the hour before a workout, and then approximately 6.7 ounces (200 mL) consumed for every 20 minutes of exertion. If the body is not kept sufficiently hydrated during physical activity, an excessive increase in body temperature, known as heat stress, might occur. Heat stress causes a number of symptoms, including severe headaches, dizziness, nausea, and muscle cramps.



Alcohol - either withdrawal or excessive consumption - is responsible for one third of migraines in the U.S. Because alcohol is legal and accessible, it is easy to overlook some of its more harmful side effects. It stimulates internal activity that affects the brain's blood vessels, causing sporadic expansion and contraction and resultant pain. Consuming alcohol also causes headaches brought about by dehydration.



Estrogen and progesterone are hormones that help the blood vessels to expand and relax. During perimenopause, hormone production declines, which causes the blood vessels in the brain to expand and constrict rapidly. This may trigger a headaches. Other menopause symptoms, such as fatigue and hot flashes, can also contribute to the onset of headaches.



Consumption of the compound monosodium glutamate (MSG), found in many junk foods and Chinese foods; nitrates, found in hot dogs and other reformed meat; and tyramine, found in smoked fish and soy products, could all induce headaches. Excessive caffeine intake or the sudden withdrawal of caffeine may also cause abnormal activity in the brain's blood vessels and resultant headaches.



Loud, brightly lit environments trigger the onset of headaches, as can high altitudes. The body is also sensitive to changes in air pressure and certain weather, so high humidity, storms, or rising temperatures can cause electrical and chemical changes in the brain that may induce or exacerbate a headache.

Making a few adjustments to avoid dietary and environmental headache triggers is likely to minimize the onset of symptoms. While the odd headache is usually nothing to worry about, if you are experiencing headaches that are increasing in intensity or regularity, it's a good idea to arrange an appointment with your doctor to treat your symptoms and rule out any serious medical concerns.

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