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Cluster Headaches


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Aug 2019
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What is a cluster headache?

A cluster headache is a particular type of headache. These headaches happen in clusters, which means you get lots of headaches for a while and then no headaches for a while.

  • Cluster headaches are more common in men than women

  • You have severe pain behind one eye or on one side of your head

  • On the same side as the headache, your nose gets stuffy and your eye waters

  • The headache usually lasts less than an hour but comes back at least once a day for a month or more

  • You may go a long time between clusters of headaches

  • Treatments include oxygen through a face mask and medicine

  • You may need to take medicine to prevent attacks

What causes cluster headache?

Doctors aren't sure what causes cluster headache. However, alcohol can trigger headaches during a cluster period.

What are the symptoms of a cluster headache?

Cluster headaches start suddenly. Symptoms are on one side of your head and are on the same side each time. In an attack:

  • You'll have very severe pain around one eye and that side of your head

  • The pain is strongest within minutes and usually lasts half an hour to an hour

  • The pain may wake you up from sleep and may make you want to pace around or even bang your head on the wall

  • You may also have a stuffy, runny nose and a watery eye on the same side as the pain

Attacks happen one or more times a day, often at the same time of day or night. They usually happen regularly for 1 to 3 months (called a cluster period). Then months or years may pass before attacks happen again.

Although the symptoms are severe and very unpleasant, cluster headaches aren't dangerous and don't cause brain damage.

How can doctors tell if I have a cluster headache?

Doctors suspect you have a cluster headache from your symptoms. To make sure your headaches aren't caused by something else, they may do:

How do doctors treat cluster headaches?

To treat a headache once it starts, doctors may give you:

  • Oxygen through a face mask

  • Medicines called triptans by injection or nasal spray

Triptans are also are used to treat migraine.

To keep from getting more headaches, you may need:

  • Corticosteroid pills

  • A nerve block (a shot of numbing medicine into a nerve in the back of your head)

  • Drugs such as those used to prevent migraines

  • Lithium

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