Headache triggers. Headaches may be caused by many factors, including stress, anxiety, hormone fluctuations, changes in weather, noise and poor lighting conditions when reading. Staring at computer screens for prolonged periods of time may also play a role, since eye strain can lead to frontal headaches. When using a computer, health experts recommend looking away every 10 to 15 minutes and focusing on another object to avoid eye strain.
For some people, dehydration, skipping meals and certain foods may trigger a headache. The Cleveland Clinic lists aged cheeses with a high concentration of the natural product tyramine – found in blue cheese, cheddar and mozzarella — and processed foods with nitrates — including hot dogs, sausage and lunch meats – as potential headache triggers.
The clinic also names red wine, beer, whiskey, Scotch and champagne as the most common alcoholic triggers. Sulfates used as a preservative in alcoholic beverages may cause a headache; the higher the concentration of sulfates, the greater the chance a person may develop a migraine.
Does caffeine harm or help? Caffeine in coffee, soft drinks, tea and chocolate may produce headaches. The Cleveland Clinic says consuming more than 300 milligrams a day of caffeine may lead to a headache, but small amounts may actually improve a migraine. Excedrin – the top recommended migraine headache product – contains 40 to 65 milligrams of caffeine. As the Cleveland Clinic states, caffeine can increase the effect of ingredients in pain relieving drugs by 40 percent. On the other hand, caffeine is a diuretic and can cause dehydration, which Bajwa says does not help headaches and migraines. Bajwa recommends that patients with headaches should not consume more than a few hundred milligrams of caffeine per day. For reference, a small cup of tea has about 60 to 80 milligrams of caffeine, while a small cup of coffee contains about 150 milligrams.
[Read: Understanding Migraine Headaches.]
Overdosing on painkillers. About 25 percent of over-the-counter painkillers are used by buyers to treat headaches, according to Bajwa. Some patients overmedicate in an attempt to quickly rid their pain, but taking more than a recommended dose may not resolve a headache. In fact, it may only make matters worse, as the National Headache Foundation says three or more doses of painkillers per day for five days can sometimes lead to rebound headaches. An optimal dose varies for each person and depends on your age, medical history, allergies to medications and other health factors, so for best results, consult your doctor.
Treating your headache. To manage a basic headache, Bajwa notes that Tylenol is a safe option and can be taken every four to six hours. But it's important to check with a doctor or pharmacist before taking medication for headache relief if you are pregnant, have a pre-existing medical condition or are taking vitamins, supplements or other medications, which can have potential negative interactions with headache relief drugs. Cold and allergy medications also often contain pain relieving ingredients, so it's a good idea to read all drug labels to ensure you do not take multiple medications with pain relievers, which could lead to toxicity. Users should also avoid mixing alcohol with headache medications, and parents should consult a doctor before giving headache medication to children under age 10.