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What do you need to know about headaches and nausea?

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Headaches and nausea can sometimes happen together, with several possible causes. Depending on their severity, they may indicate a serious medical condition.
Medically reviewed by Angelica Balingit, MD
Written by D. M. Pollock
Updated on May 17, 2023

A headache is a painful sensation that causes discomfort in your head and neck. Nausea is an uncomfortable feeling in your stomach that may cause you to feel like you need to vomit. You may experience a headache that causes nausea due to different reasons.

Two types of headaches can lead to nausea: migraine and cluster headaches.

How can headaches result in nausea?

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Migraine is a medical condition that causes a strong throbbing pain, which can start on one side of your head. These headaches can last from 4–72 hours.

During a migraine episode, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • sensitivity to light or sounds
  • aura
  • vomiting

Dehydration can also trigger headaches and nausea. This can happen if you forget to drink enough fluids throughout the day. It can also happen if you drink alcohol without keeping yourself hydrated. Dehydration can worsen the pain and nausea of a headache during a hangover.

Headache and nausea may also occur if you consume too much caffeine or nicotine.

Other possible causes of headache and nausea include:

Headaches and nausea are common symptoms. Read on to learn how headaches and nausea could be a sign of something that requires immediate medical treatment.

How can headaches and nausea be treated?

Your healthcare professional may recommend a treatment option depending on what’s causing your headache and nausea symptoms. If an underlying medical condition is causing headaches that make you feel nauseous, a healthcare professional will work with you to treat the cause.

Medication

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are an effective treatment for headaches. Some over-the-counter options for headache relief include:

  • paracetamol
  • ibuprofen (Advil)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine (Excedrin)

If you’re feeling nauseous or have headaches due to stomach or digestive system problems such as gastroenteritis, aspirin may be too harsh on your stomach.

Consider speaking with a healthcare professional to determine which medication option may be best for you.

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Alternative treatments

Alternative treatments that can help with headaches and nausea include:

  • lifestyle changes, such as exercising regularly and sleeping at the same time every day
  • complementary therapies, such as acupuncture

Also, many home remedies can help relieve symptoms of headache and nausea. If a migraine headache is causing these symptoms, the same methods can help you manage headaches and nausea at home.

Examples of home remedies for headaches and nausea include:

  • using a cold compress
  • doing yoga
  • drinking herbal teas, such as those containing curcumin or chamomile

If your headache is causing feelings of nausea, the following may help:

  • resting in a dark room
  • applying a cold compress to the head and neck
  • getting fresh air
  • eating small portions of plain foods
  • sipping fluids frequently

If home remedies don’t work for you, consider seeking advice from a healthcare professional. They may be able to prescribe pain relievers.

Headaches and your menstrual cycle

If you have a menstrual cycle, hormonal changes during the month may cause your symptoms. Healthcare professionals note that migraine is the result of a drop in estrogen, which people experience during a menstrual cycle.

If you think your menstrual cycle may be leading to headaches and nausea, consider tracking the timing of your headaches in a diary. This can also be helpful if you choose to speak with a healthcare professional about your symptoms.

A healthcare professional may prescribe medications to help manage migraine and nausea caused by hormonal changes. They usually recommend taking the medications 2 days before your period, for 5–7 days.

Some of these medications can include:

How can headaches and nausea be prevented?

While some causes of headaches and nausea are difficult to avoid, there are ways that you can reduce your chances of experiencing them. These include:

  • Avoiding triggers: Consider keeping a diary of when you experience headaches and nausea. This may help you identify any triggers and learn to avoid them.
  • Staying well hydrated: This will help you prevent dehydration and any headaches it may cause.
  • Avoiding too much alcohol and caffeine: These substances can be dehydrating. If you’re drinking alcohol or caffeinated drinks, it’s important to drink water alongside them.
  • Managing blood sugar levels: Regularly eating small amounts can help maintain blood sugar levels. If you have diabetes and want to avoid low blood sugar, it’s important to follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.
  • Managing stress levels: Yoga, meditation, or walking can help relieve pent-up stress or tension.

Why do I wake up with a headache and nausea?

According to recent studies, morning headaches may affect 7.6% of the general population.

Common causes include:

  • Sleep apnea: Morning headaches are a common symptom of sleep apnea.
  • Snoring: Snoring alone can increase the chance that you have morning headaches.
  • Insomnia: Not having enough sleep can increase the chances of morning headaches. You may feel sluggish and tired during the day.

What does a stroke headache feel like?

Sometimes, a headache can be a sign of a stroke. Some people may assume they’re having a migraine episode and not seek medical attention right away. A headache that is a sign of a stroke will be sudden, intense, and without any obvious cause. You may describe the headache as different and more severe than any other.

Other signs of a stroke include:

  • slurring speech
  • dizziness
  • confusion
  • drooping face
  • loss of coordination

Severe head injuries that cause a brain aneurysm or subdural hemorrhage (a buildup of blood between the brain surface and skull) can also result in a hemorrhagic stroke.

A ruptured blood vessel can cause a hemorrhagic stroke, which may not present with symptoms. However, early evidence of a brain aneurysm may include:

  • a severe headache, described by some as the “worst headache” of their life
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • dilated pupils
  • stiff neck
  • loss of balance or coordination

If you think you’re having a hemorrhagic stroke, it’s important to seek immediate medical attention. Emergency care is crucial to stop the bleeding from a rupture and prevent further damage to the brain.

When should you speak with a doctor?

Most of the time, mild to moderate headaches will stop on their own, just like when you have a cold. However, you, a family member, or someone close to you should seek medical help if you experience the following:

  • loss of consciousness
  • stiffness
  • dizziness
  • fever
  • vomiting

Sometimes, headaches and nausea can also be a sign of underlying health conditions, such as:

  • meningitis, a condition where the brain and spinal cord become inflamed
  • an intracranial tumor, a growth of cells inside or near the brain
  • encephalitis, a condition where the brain becomes inflamed
  • an abscess, a painful bacterial infection

If you’re concerned that your headache and nausea may be signs of a central nervous system infection, you should seek medical help immediately.

Summary

Headaches with nausea are often the result of a migraine episode. Dehydration, low blood sugar, and sleep apnea are also common causes.

In some instances, headaches and nausea can be a sign of something more serious, such as a stroke.

If you’re concerned about your symptoms, consider speaking with a healthcare professional. They can suggest treatment options that work best for you.

Download the free Optum Perks Discount Card to save up to 80% on some prescription medications.


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