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What does my headache mean?

types of headaches and meaning

Estimates suggest that 96% of us have experienced a headache at some time. 1 They’re an unfortunate fact of life. 

To make matters worse, getting to the bottom of what’s causing a headache can be a real challenge. There are about 150 different kinds, many of which have different causes and symptoms. But did you know the location of a headache could provide clues as to what’s causing it?

Let’s look at some of the most common types of headaches, which part of the head they affect, and what they might mean.

Common types of headaches and their locations

1. Both sides of the head (bilateral)

A headache affecting both sides of the head is called a tension-type headache. As this is the most common type of headache, you may have experienced one yourself.

People often describe tension headaches as dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head. Usually, it doesn’t throb. Instead, it’s more of a dull, persistent pain. Tension-type headaches typically last at least 30 minutes and can go on for days.

Some common causes of tension headaches include:

  • Poor sleep
  • Stress
  • Muscular contractions in the head and neck
  • Too much caffeine

Tension-type headaches often go away on their own and are not usually a sign of an underlying condition. 

2. One side of the head (unilateral)

Migraine headaches

Migraines are a common cause of headaches affecting 1 side of the head. About 1 in 5 women and 1 in 15 men experience them. 2

Migraines usually cause one-sided throbbing headaches alongside other symptoms that can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Difficulty focusing

As well as these symptoms, some people experience auras when they have a migraine. Auras are vision, speech, and sensory disturbances that usually happen just before or during a migraine. For many people, auras are the first signs that they’re having a migraine. 

Migraine triggers differ between affected people. However, they can come about due to:

  • Menstruation
  • Stress
  • Tiredness
  • Certain foods and drinks

Migraines can last anywhere from an hour to 3 days.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are a less common type of headaches on 1 side of the head.

Often felt around the eye socket, cluster headaches cause extreme pain that lasts between 15 minutes and 3 hours. They can occur several times in one day. 

During an attack of cluster headaches, people often become restless or agitated. They may experience other symptoms, too, including:

  • Red, watering eyes
  • Drooping and swelling in 1 eyelid
  • A shrunken pupil in 1 eye
  • A sweaty face
  • A blocked or runny nostril

It’s not exactly clear what causes cluster headaches, although there appears to be a genetic link, and people who smoke may be at higher risk.

3. Front of the head (frontal)

Sinus headaches

A headache around the eyes, cheeks, and forehead may occur after a viral infection, such as a cold, or when you have hay fever or allergies.

Sinus headaches are often accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • A stuffy nose
  • Nasal mucous discharge
  • Fatigue
  • A reduced sense of smell

As sinus headaches and migraines have some similar symptoms, it’s possible to get them confused. Studies show that over 90% of self-diagnosed sinus headaches are actually caused by migraines. 3 Sinus headaches tend to last longer than migraines, often hanging around for several days at a time. Also, some symptoms of migraines, such as nausea and auras, do not occur with sinus headaches.

Caffeine withdrawal headache

You may experience headaches in the front of your head if you cut back on your caffeine consumption too quickly. 

Often starting as pain and pressure behind the eyes, caffeine headaches can move up to the forehead. 

Caffeine withdrawal headaches aren’t serious and go away after a few days. If you’re trying to cut down on caffeine, it’s a good idea to do it gradually to avoid caffeine withdrawal headaches.

4. All over the head and neck

Thunderclap headaches affect the whole head and neck. They’re serious, and people who experience this kind of headache often describe the experience as “the worst headache of their life.”

People who are affected by thunderclap headaches may also experience nausea, vomiting, and photophobia (sensitivity to light). 

Thunderclap headaches can be a sign of subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is a medical emergency. If you think you’re experiencing a thunderclap headache, you should seek emergency medical attention. 

Treating headaches at home

There are several things you can do to ease a headache. Here are a few you can try:

  • Drink more water.
  • Try to relax, as stress can make headaches worse.
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol, ibuprofen, or aspirin.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough sleep.

If you take painkillers to relieve headaches on a regular basis, you may experience a rebound headache once the medication wears off. If you’re experiencing headaches often, speak to your doctor.

When to see the doctor

A headache’s location isn’t a 100% effective way to diagnose what’s causing it. If you’re experiencing headaches regularly, painkillers aren’t helping, or the pain is severely impacting the way you live your life, it’s time to visit the doctor.

If you’re experiencing the following symptoms alongside a severe headache, you should seek emergency care: 

  • Pain in your jaw when eating
  • Blurry or double vision
  • A painful scalp
  • Numb or weak arms or legs
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light 

  1. American Journal of Medicine (2017). [Headache]. Accessed on 12 September 2022.

  2. NHS UK (2022). [Migraine]. Accessed on 12 September 2022.

  3. NIH (2016). [New thoughts on sinus headache]. Accessed on 12 September 2022.



Ada is a global health company founded by doctors, scientists, and industry pioneers to create new possibilities for personal health.

Medical reviewer:


Ada is a global health company founded by doctors, scientists, and industry pioneers to create new possibilities for personal health.