HealthyLife® Students' Self-Care Guide

Table of Contents

 Section I–Common Health Problems Caution

Previous Topic | Next Topic


“It’s tough to keep your face in a book for hours at a time. When I have a lot of reading to do, I take a 10 minute break for every hour I am studying to stop getting headaches.”

Amy C., Michigan State University

Headaches are one of the most common health complaints, not just for college students, but for adults and even children.


Keep a diary of when, where, and why the headaches occur.

Be aware of early symptoms. Try to stop the headache as soon as it begins.

Exercise on a regular basis.

Keep regular sleeping times, as much as you can.

Don’t smoke. If you smoke, quit. (See “Don’t Use Tobacco Products”.)

Avoid excess alcohol; it can cause a headache.

Signs, Symptoms & Causes

Symptoms vary depending on the type of headache.

Tension or Muscular Headaches

Most headaches are this type. Signs and symptoms:

A dull ache in your forehead, above your ears, or at the back of your head

Pain in your neck or shoulders that travels to your head

Tension headaches are caused by tense or tight muscles in the face, neck, or scalp. You can get a tension headache from a number of things:

Not getting enough sleep

Feeling “stressed out”

Reading for long periods of time or eyestrain

Doing repetitive work

Staying in one position for a long time, such as working at a computer

Migraine Headaches

Migraine headaches happen when blood vessels in your head open too wide or close too tight. Signs and symptoms are:

Headaches that start on one side of your head and one side of your head hurts more than the other

You feel sick to your stomach or vomit.

You see spots or zigzag flashes of light before the headache.

Light hurts your eyes, noise bothers you, and the headache is worse with activity.

After the headache, some people have a drained feeling with tired, aching muscles. Others feel great after the headache goes away.

Migraines can occur with or without an aura. An aura is symptoms a person experiences, such as spots or flashing lights, or numbness for 10 to 30 minutes prior to the headache. Ten percent of all migraines are this type; 90% occur without an aura.

Migraine headaches occur more often in females than in males and tend to run in families.

Certain things trigger migraine headaches in susceptible people. They include:

Menstruation in females

Caffeine, alcohol, and/or certain foods, such as aged cheeses, cured meats (hot dogs, ham, etc.)

Stress or changes in sleeping patterns

Strenuous exercise

Sinus Headaches

A sinus headache occurs when fluids in the nose aren’t able to drain well and a buildup of pressure occurs in the sinuses. A cold, allergies, dirty or polluted water, and airplane travel can cause a sinus headache. Signs and symptoms are:

Pain in your forehead, cheekbones, and nose that is worse in the morning

Increased pain when you bend over or touch your face

Stuffy nose

Other Causes of Headaches

Analgesic rebound from regular or repeated use of over-the-counter or prescribed pain relievers

Eating or drinking something very cold, such as ice cream. {Note: To prevent ice cream headaches, warm the ice cream for a few seconds in the front of your mouth.}

Low blood sugar; hunger

Cigarette smoke, or exposure to chemicals, and/or pollution

Uncorrected vision problems, such as near-sightedness

Caffeine withdrawal

Temporomandibular Joint (TMJ) Dysfunction

A headache can be a symptom of other health conditions. Examples are allergies, depression (see signs and symptoms of depression), infections, and dental problems.


Self-care can be used for headaches caused by tension, fatigue, and/or stress. Over-the-counter Excedrin Migraine or prescribed medicines can be used to treat migraine headaches.

Biofeedback has helped many people who have suffered from headaches.

Headaches that are symptoms of health conditions are relieved when the condition is treated with success.

Questions to Ask

Is the headache associated with any of the following?

  • A head injury

  • A blow to the head that causes severe pain, enlarged pupils, vomiting, confusion, or lethargy

  • Loss of consciousness

Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Has the headache come on suddenly and does it hurt much more than others you have had? Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Does a severe, persistent headache occur with any of the following signs and symptoms of meningitis?
  • Stiff neck (can't bend the head forward to touch the chin to the chest)
  • Red or purple rash that doesn't fade when pressure is applied to the skin
  • Seizure
  • Lethargy
Yes. Get Immediate Care.


Has the headache been occurring for more than 2 to 3 days and does it keep increasing in frequency and intensity? Yes. See Provider.


Do you have signs and symptoms of a migraine headache listed above? Yes. See Provider.


Is the headache not relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers and does it occur with any signs and symptoms of a sinus infection? Yes. See Provider.


Has the headache occurred at the same time of day, week, or month, such as with a menstrual period and is it not relieved by over-the-counter pain relievers? Yes. See Provider.


Do you have to take a pain reliever more than 3 times a week for at least 3 weeks for headaches? Yes. Call Provider.


Have you noticed the headache only after taking newly prescribed or over-the-counter medicines? Yes. Call Provider.



Take an over-the-counter medicine for pain as directed on the label. (See “OTC Medications for "Pain relief".)

Rest in a quiet, dark room with your eyes closed.

Massage the back of your neck with your thumbs. Work from the ears toward the center of the back of your head. Also, rub gently along the sides of your eyes. Gently rub your shoulders, neck, and jaw. Get a massage.

Take a warm bath or shower.

Place a cold or warm washcloth, whichever feels better, over the area that aches.

Relax. Picture a calm scene in your head. Meditate or breathe deeply.

Avoid things that seem to bring on headaches.

Don’t grind your teeth.

For a hangover: After drinking alcohol, have 2 or more glasses of water before you go to sleep; take an over-the-counter pain reliever; eat solid foods; rest or sleep. Drink 2 or more glasses of water when you wake up.

ComputerFor Information, Contact:

National Headache Foundation

February 19, 2004

©2003, 4th edition. American Institute for Preventive Medicine All rights reserved.