Cluster Headache

What is cluster headache?

Cluster headaches are intense attacks of head or eye pain. They tend to affect one side of the head and the pain comes from around or behind the eye. These headaches tend to recur. The cause of cluster headaches is uncertain. Cluster headaches can affect anyone but more commonly affect young to middle-aged adults. Treatment is limited to using painkillers and breathing in pure oxygen. Cluster headaches can not be cured, but can be managed. Cluster headaches tend to become less frequent over time.


The causes of cluster headaches are largely unknown but a sudden release of histamine (a substance usually produced by the body’s immune system) is considered a possible cause. Many people who experience cluster headaches notice over time that their headaches are triggered by certain foods, drinks or smells. People over the age of 20 are more prone to developing cluster headaches. Men tend to develop this condition more commonly than women. Cluster headaches may also run in families.


A cluster headache is characterized by a severe, one-sided, sharp and burning headache which begins suddenly around or behind the eye. These headaches can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours. Other symptoms include the drooping of the eyelids, a tearing and/or red eye, and a runny nose. There is usually no pain in the time between headaches. There is typically a period of weeks or months between headaches, although some people may get cluster headaches more frequently. The headaches tend to reoccur at the same time of day.


The diagnosis is usually made after reviewing the symptoms and conducting a physical examination of the patient. A headache diary can be helpful in confirming the diagnosis. Other tests, such as a MRI scan of the head, may be necessary to rule out alternative possible causes for the headaches.


It may be helpful to see a neurologist for advice around treatment. A medication called sumatriptan is commonly prescribed, because it specifically targets the headache, and works faster than other pain-relieving medications. Breathing pure oxygen also often helps to relieve the pain of cluster headaches.


Some medications prevent episodes of cluster headaches. It is important to discuss these with a doctor, as these medications may not be appropriate in every case.

Other names for cluster headache

  • Histamine headache