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How to get rid of a headache

Dr Becky Collins photo

Created: 6 August, 2018

Updated: 23 October, 2019

We’ve all been there - sat at a desk, head throbbing, just wanting to go home and sit in a dark room. Whilst the majority of headaches are not caused by anything serious, they can be severe enough to require time away from your daily activities.


Thankfully, most of the time they afflict sufferers with short-term symptoms, which can be alleviated with the use of  over-the-counter medications or some of these at-home (or at-work or on-the-go) remedies.

What are the different types of headaches?

There are a few common types of headache, and most headaches tend to fit into one of these categories.

  • Tension headaches - this is the most common type of headache which typically feels like a tightness or pressure across the forehead or behind the eyes, sometimes across both sides of the head, and sometimes with a tightness in the neck. They are generally short lived and don’t tend to disrupt your day too much.
  • Migraine headaches - a migraine causes a severe pounding or throbbing sensation, usually on one side of the head. They are often associated with other symptoms such as sensitivity to light or sound, nausea and vomiting. Some people experience an ‘aura’ beforehand which is like a warning sign before the headache itself starts, such as seeing flashing lights.
  • Cluster headaches - this type of headache is much rarer. They cause severe and disabling attacks of pain in one side of the head, typically around the eye, and often associated with other symptoms such as a red watery eye, drooping or swelling of an eyelid, or a runny or blocked nose. As the name suggests they occur in clusters, usually every day for weeks or even months, before going subsiding.
  • Sinus headaches - whilst very similar to migraines, this is actually typically a symptom of sinusitis. These headaches feel like a pressure in your face, often worse when tilting your head forward, and possibly aching in your upper teeth and a congested feeling in your nose and across your cheeks.
  • Medication overuse headaches/rebound headaches – these are longlasting headaches which occur as a result of using painkilling medication such as paracetamol, often for a headache, for a long period of time (more than about 2 weeks).
  • Trigeminal neuralgia – this is a condition causing short sharp bursts of severe facial pain, like electric shocks, typically on one side of the face. 

What can cause a headache?

Headaches happen for a number of reasons, some of which are avoidable. Some reasons include:

These are just some of the problems that can cause your symptoms. Sometimes (but rarely!) a headache is a symptom of a different, more serious or long-term problem.

Suffer from persistent headaches? See a doctor today
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How to get rid of a headache without medicine

Luckily, most headaches are short-lived and easily treatable. But if pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medicines aren’t helping, some of these home-remedies might.

They might also help manage your symptoms in the instance of rebound headaches as described above.

  1. Drink more water

This is the first thing you should do when you start to feel a headache coming on.


If you’re symptoms are related to dehydration, getting enough water can help relieve the pain in as little as 30 minutes. Around 2 to 3 litres of water daily is the general recommendation.

  1. Consider having a caffeinated drink

It can seem hard to get the right balance when it comes to your caffeine intake. On the one hand we are told that it can be blamed for causing headaches, and on the other hand we are told that it can be used as a quick-fix to relieve symptoms.

Sufferers of chronic headaches are advised to avoid - or limit - their consumption. This is to avoid the risk of ‘caffeine withdrawal’. There is no doubt that too much caffeine is not a good thing. Be aware that caffeine can also be found in some over the counter medications and foods such as chocolate!

However, if you find yourself experiencing them only every so often, and you’re not a regular caffeine drinker, a cup of coffee or tea could do the trick! Caffeine causes our blood vessels to narrow, meaning there’s a reduction in blood flow and, consequently, this can reduce pain.

  1. Use a hot or cold compress to relieve pain

Temperature therapy - using cold or hot compresses - can be a helpful for relieving headaches.

For pain, cold compresses can have a numbing effect on the area of pain (like your neck or head). There are many products tailored to this, but a chilled, wet flannel would work just as well.

The symptoms of tension headaches can be improved with a warm compress (like a heating pad) or by taking a bath, as the heat helps to relax your head and neck muscles.

  1. Test out some essential oils

Two of the most effective oils when it comes to treating headaches are peppermint and lavender oil.


Peppermint oil has been found to reduce both tension and migraine-related pain. Combine a soothing temple-rub with adding peppermint oil to the area.

Lavender oil, on the other hand, has been shown to be an effective natural remedy for migraines in particular.

  1. Cut out foods high in histamine

You may have heard the word ‘histamine’ a lot lately in the midst of hayfever season. But did you know that it can also be held responsible for many people’s headaches?

One study looked into the link between histamine and migraines. If you suffer from frequent migraines, cutting out histamine-rich foods could help prevent their occurrence. This includes cured meats, wine and some cheeses.

Keeping a food and symptom diary can be useful for anybody suffering from frequent headaches to see if there are any potential dietary triggers to their symptoms.

  1. Avoid alcohol

Anyone who has woken up on a Sunday morning feeling a little worse for wear can vouch for this one. But from some frequent sufferers (particularly of migraines) it can be a trigger the onset of a headache even in smaller amounts. Keeping alcohol to a minimum is therefore a good idea.

  1. Sleep it off in a dark room

Whilst drastic changes to your sleeping pattern are not recommended in general, if you suffer from migraine attacks, sitting (or preferably napping) in a dark room can drastically reduce the pain you’re experiencing.

There have been a lot of studies focusing on the relationship between migraines, light sensitivity and sleep as a way to both prevent and treat the pain.


Sleeping off the pain of a migraine - and a bad tension headache - is one of the most effective home-remedies.

People who get enough sleep overall are less likely to suffer from frequent headaches.

  1. Use some de-stressing techniques

There is a lot of evidence for the connection between stress and headaches. One large study in particular found a link between stress intensity and headache frequency.

Try some of these relaxation techniques if you’re a frequent sufferer and see if it helps to clear your head - and keep it healthy.

  1. Take some magnesium

Available in the form of supplement tablets, magnesium has been proven by some studies to reduce the how often - and how badly - migraine sufferers experience an attack.

It is sensible to speak to your GP before starting any supplements, especially if you take any other medications regularly.

  1. Take regular exercise

Research has shown that regular exercise can reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and migraines, thought to be related to the release of endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers. 

When to see a doctor about a headache

There are some signs and symptoms to be aware of which if present, should trigger you to seek an assessment from a medical professional just to check that no further investigation into the cause of your headache is needed.

  • You or a family member/friend have noticed memory or personality changes with your headache.
  • You have developed problems with your speech, balance or vision.
  • You have developed problems with the strength or sensation in your arms and legs.
  • You are having fits, faints or other funny turns.
  • Your headache started suddenly or is the worst headache you have ever had.
  • You have recurrent vomiting.
  • You have a pain in your scalp or your jaw hurts when eating.
  • Your eyes are painful or look red.
  • Your headache is worse when you cough, sneeze or strain.
  • You have a high temperature, stiff neck, or rash with your headache.
  • You have low immunity, due to another condition or medication you are taking.
  • You have had a significant head injury within the past 3 months.
  • You have had cancer previously.
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Topics: Health and Wellbeing, Headaches

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