The appropriate medication for treating a headache depends on the type of headache you are experiencing. Headaches are broadly divided into two categories – primary headache and secondary headache. Tension headache, migraine headache and cluster headache are the three main types of primary headache.
An underlying structural problem or illness such as tumor, infection or bleeding in the brain triggers secondary headache. Treating the underlying cause of the headache provides relief from secondary headache.
Pain relief drugs are usually used as the first line treatment for curing headaches. These drugs are usually available over-the-counter. Some types of headache may require prescription medications. If you experience headache more than twice a week, you may ask your physician for a preventive headache drug. However, overuse of headache medications increases the risk of rebound headaches.
Medications to Treat Headaches
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
To provide fast relief from a headache, you need a pain relief medication. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are primarily used for alleviating headaches. Aspirin is the most effective drug used for headache treatment. Owing to the risk of developing a life threatening neurological condition called Reye’s syndrome, aspirin is usually not recommended for children and teenagers below the age of 20. Ibuprofen is considered a safer alternative to aspirin for children and adolescents.
The NSAID diclofenac can be used for treating tension headaches and migraines. In addition to tension headache and migraine, hormone headaches can be prevented with fenoprofen and flurbiprofen. Other NSAIDs suitable for treating tension headaches include ketorolac and meclomen. Overuse of NSAIDs for treating headaches, increases the risk of developing frequent headaches. Prolonged use of these drugs may cause gastrointestinal bleeding, heartburn, ulcers, bronchospasm and anaphylaxis. Migraine headache patients susceptible to nausea can take prescription indomethacin suppository.
Triptans are serotonin receptor agonists used for treating migraine and cluster headaches. They work by constricting the blood vessels in the brain. Triptans are taken orally, injected or used as nasal spray. These drugs work rapidly, providing relief from moderate to severe headache within a short time. For best results, a triptan drug should be taken the moment you experience a migraine headache. Triptans may cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea and muscle ache. These drugs are not suitable for people who have a risk of heart attack or stroke.
Acetaminophen or paracetamol is a safe headache medication. It is suitable for treating mild to moderate headache.
Side effects rarely occur when this drug is used appropriately. Prolonged use of acetaminophen or acetaminophen overdose may cause liver damage and change blood counts.
Ergotamine combined with caffeine is occasionally used for treating migraine headache. These drugs are less effective than triptans. It is usually recommended for treating migraine headache that persists for more than two days. The ergotamine derivative dihydroergotamine is more effective than the traditional erogmetine drugs for treating migraine. It may be prescribed as an alternative to triptans. Dizziness, nausea and poor blood circulation are possible side effects of the drug.
Aspirin, Acetaminophen and Caffeine Combination
Migraine headache can be alleviated with the help of medication containing aspirin, acetaminophen and caffeine. However, it is rarely effective for treating severe migraine headache.
This drug is unsuitable for children below the age of 14. This drug is considered safe when taken appropriately. Liver damage and change in blood count are rare side effects of the medication.
Muscle relaxants such as tizanidine, carisoprodol, methocarbamol, orphenadrine citrate, cyclobenzaprine and metaxalone are occasionally used for treating chronic tension headaches. Dizziness, nausea and drowsiness are common side effects of these drugs.
The corticosteroid dexamethasone is rarely used in combination with pain relief drugs to treat severe chronic headache. To prevent stomach problems, a common side effect of dexamethasone, it should be taken with food or milk.
People on this medication should consume a protein rich, high potassium and low sodium diet. Stomach irritation, dizziness, insomnia, anxiety, acne, easy bruising, irregular menstruation and excess hair growth are possible side effects of dexamethasone.
Opiates are rarely prescribed for treating chronic headache that do not respond to conventional treatment. To avoid addiction to these drugs, they should be used under medical supervision for a short time.