Red flags can warn you of dangerous headaches

A headache can be mild or excruciating, but the degree of pain isn’t necessarily a sign of how serious it is.

“A headache may stem from a harmless problem, or it might be a sign of a life-threatening disorder,” says Dr. Ahmed Jafri, a neurologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “There are certain red flags that should send a person to the doctor, or even an emergency room.”

Anyone who frequently uses pain medication to self-treat chronic headaches should seek medical help, Dr. Jafri says.

However, any of these symptoms call for immediate emergency care:

• A change in the character or pattern of existing headaches;

• Explosive headaches;

• Pain that continues to increase in intensity;

• New headaches in children or seniors;

• “The worst headache of my life”; or

• Headache with exertion, coughing or sexual activity.

Dr. Jafri also says that a headache accompanied by fever and stiff neck, or visual impairment, or fainting, or paralysis anywhere on the body, or bloodshot eyes with tearing and a runny nose requires medical care.

Visit to learn more about UT Southwestern’s clinical services in the neurosciences, including neurology.

June 6-12 is National Headache Awareness Week.

Media Contact: Aline McKenzie

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June 2010 News Tips