Everyone experiences a headache from time to time. It’s even possible to have a headache that lasts for more than one day. There are many reasons why a headache can last a while, from hormonal changes to more serious underlying conditions.
While it can be alarming for a headache to last a long time — so long that you may not be able to sleep it off — most headaches aren’t life threatening. But it’s no fun when a lingering headache affects your ability to do the things you enjoy.
Let’s take a look at what can cause these headaches and how you can get relief.
When to seek immediate medical attention
If you’ve been experiencing the same headache for more than one day, it’s possible that you could have a more serious underlying condition that requires emergency medical care. Seek medical attention right away if you’re experiencing:
a severe headache that began abruptly (within a few seconds)
a migraine that has lasted several days, or even weeks
any new symptoms you haven’t previously experienced along with the headache (disorientation, loss of vision or vision changes, fatigue, or fever)
kidney, heart, or liver disease with a headache
a severe or ongoing headache in pregnancy, which could indicate complications like preeclampsia
HIV or another immune system disorder along with a headache
What causes a headache that won’t go away?
There are multiple conditions that can cause a persistent headache that lasts for more than a day. Some of those include:
Regularly taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication for your headaches can actually cause your head to hurt between doses. While this type of headache often doesn’t hang around, it can recur over the course of a day or more.
Migraines are a severe type of headache that can last for days, or even weeks, at a time. They start with a feeling of general illness that takes hold one or two days before the headache begins. Some people experience aura, or bright, flashing vision changes, before the pain begins.
Then, there’s the headache itself, with symptoms that may include:
throbbing pain on either side (or both sides) of your head
pain behind your eyes
light and sound sensitivity
sensitivity to odors and fragrances
After your migraine lifts, you may experience a hangover-like feeling of fatigue and exhaustion.
Headaches related to stress or mood disorders
Anxiety, stress, and mood disorders can trigger headaches that linger for more than a day. Specifically, those with panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder tend to experience prolonged headaches more often than those without.
Sometimes your headaches actually aren’t coming from your head at all. They’re coming from your neck.
In cervicogenic headaches, pain is referred to your head from an area in your neck. You may not even realize where it’s originating from. And if the underlying cause — the problem in your neck — isn’t treated, your headache won’t go away.
Cervicogenic headaches can be caused by injuries, arthritis, bone fractures, tumors, or infection. Your posture or falling asleep in an awkward position could cause a cervicogenic headache. It’s also possible that disc-related wear can also cause these types of headaches.
Concussions and other head injuries
If you’ve recently experienced a concussion or similar head injury, you could be dealing with an ongoing headache. This is called post-concussion syndrome, and it’s a mild injury to your brain caused by the initial trauma. It can last for months after a concussion — possibly up to a year.
Symptoms of post-concussion syndrome include:
recurrent or ongoing headaches
periods of irritability
short-term memory issues
a ringing sensation in your ears
sensitivity to sound and light
sensory disturbances like lessened sense of smell and taste
Treatment for a headache that won’t go away
A variety of treatment options, including home treatments and medical care, can help relieve symptoms of a prolonged headache.
Overusing OTC pain medications can actually cause headaches. If you’re experiencing ongoing rebound headaches, you can start addressing your symptoms at home by reducing the amount of OTC medications you take.
You shouldn’t take medicine for pain for more than 15 days out of every month, and prescription pain medications shouldn’t be used for more than 10 days out of every month.
Your doctor or pharmacist can guide you regarding medication ingredients and potential side effects.
If you continue to experience chronic headache pain, your doctor may be able to help. Make an appointment to speak with them about preventative medicines.
Ask your healthcare provider alternative treatment options for headaches and migraines, like antidepressants for headaches caused by chronic tension.
Waiting until your headache starts could keep you in a cycle of OTC treatment, so prevention is key.
To address your migraine symptoms at home consider building a predictable schedule that minimizes stress and keeps you in a routine. Focus on adhering to regular mealtimes and a solid sleep schedule.
Exercise can help prevent migraines, but be sure to warm up slowly before diving right in, as too much strenuous exercise can cause a headache.
Prescriptions containing estrogen, like the birth control pill, could also contribute to your migraines. You might need to speak with your doctor about stopping or changing those medications.
Your doctor may prescribe medications specifically for migraines that can prevent the headaches from occurring. They may also prescribe pain medications that are stronger than OTC options to stop your symptoms once they’ve begun.
Anti-nausea medication, opioids, or corticosteroid treatments are sometimes prescribed by physicians for migraine symptoms as well.
Headaches related to stress or mood disorders
Work to reduce stress and promote relaxation in your environment. Self-massage or massage therapy may help ease the tension that causes ongoing headaches. You may also benefit from reducing stimuli and resting in a dark, quiet room.
Your doctor can help you address your stress, anxiety, or mood disorder through a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication.
Your doctor may prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications that can help relieve the tension and stress causing your prolonged headaches. Some medications for anxiety also work to reduce headache.
Because cervicogenic headaches can be caused by injuries or issues in the neck, the underlying cause must be addressed to relieve your headache. Your doctor will examine you to rule out other types of headaches arising from other sources, like tension headaches.
Once the cause of pain is identified, your doctor may prescribe pain medication or nerve blocks to manage pain. They may also recommend physical therapy or a therapeutic exercise routine for pain management.
Concussions and other head injuries
While post-concussion syndrome does not have a specific treatment regimen, your doctor will work with you to address your specific symptoms. You can also take comfort measures at home to reduce your pain, like resting and limiting stimuli when you’re hurting.
Your doctor might advise you to take OTC medication for mild pain, or they may prescribe stronger pain management medication for headaches.
However, remember that overuse of pain medication can contribute to rebound headaches. So discuss with your doctor if you feel you’re taking too much.
Unexplained or general headaches
For unexplained, ongoing headaches, you may be able to manage or ease your symptoms at home through comfort measures, rest, and responsible use of medication.
Massage therapy can ease muscle tension that contributes to headaches, or you can perform self-massage techniques at home.
Managing your stress can help reduce your pain. Also consider reducing the intensity of your exercise schedule or focusing on your form while exercising.
If your headache continues to persist, see your doctor. You may have an underlying condition that they can diagnose. With proper treatment, you’ll be able to address your persistent headache pain and return to your normal quality of life.
Preventing long-lasting headaches
You may be able to prevent persistent headaches before they begin by taking a few steps every day. These include:
drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration
avoiding environmental triggers
getting needed support for your mental health
seeking hormonal support, particularly if you’re premenopausal or experiencing menopause
Headaches that won’t go away are alarming, but they usually aren’t serious. It’s important to discuss your symptoms with your doctor.