Sometimes you get a headache and you can totally pinpoint why (in hindsight, that third glass of Merlot was probably a bad idea) and when it’ll all be over (about 30 minutes after popping a painkiller and downing a gallon of water). But what about when a headache hits you like a pile of bricks—every day for a week? Here’s what to know about cluster headaches.
What are they? Cluster headaches are sharp or throbbing headaches that occur every day (or almost every day) and can last from weeks to months. They can strike once or several times in a day and can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. Because they usually happen the same time each day, they’re nicknamed “alarm clock headaches.” They might also occur during the same time of the year, like every spring. (Because, you know, seasonal allergies aren’t enough to deal with.)
So, kind of like a migraine? Not quite. While both can be excruciatingly painful, cluster headaches are rarely accompanied by nausea or light sensitivity (two classic migraine symptoms). Instead cluster headaches typically affect one side of the head and the area around the eyes, and are often accompanied by red, watery eyes or a stuffy nose. And while migraine sufferers tend to find relief by lying down, someone who’s dealing with a cluster headache will often pace around and feel restless. So yeah, pretty terrible.
What causes cluster headaches? While doctors don’t really know what causes them, they are more common in smokers and heavy drinkers, our friends at WebMD tell us. A sudden increase in temperature or exercising in hot weather may also trigger episodes.
How can I prevent them? OK, first the bad news. OTC pain meds, like ibuprofen, won’t help cluster headaches since the pain starts and finishes so quickly that by time they kick in, it’s probably too late. But there are other prescription medications that can help, so talk to your doctor about finding one that works for you. There are also preventative measures that you can take including limiting alcohol, quitting smoking, avoiding exercise in hot weather and maintaining a regular sleep pattern. (Aka pretty sound advice.)