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Headaches 101

by Riley Sugarman

photography courtesy of Amanda Willis

The semester is officially in full swing following Syllabus Week, and the real work is about to begin. Most stressed-out college students will find themselves afflicted with headaches at some point during the school year, whether from pulling an all-nighter or stressing for a midterm next week.

Healthy lifestyle habits and over-the-counter painkillers can cure most headaches, but others are more serious. Here are five types of headaches college students might feel during the semester and how to handle them:

Tension headaches

Tension headaches typically present with a dull, aching pain wrapping around the head—almost like a headband—or isolated at the base of the head, along the scalp or sides of the head. Many also feel pressure behind the eyes or sensitivity to light and sound.

Tension headaches are common because they have a variety of possible causes. Eye strain, stress, depression, loud noise, lack of sleep and dehydration can result in tension headaches.

Many of these causes are common among college students, which puts them at risk of experiencing tension headaches during their college careers.

Over-the-counter painkillers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin can temporarily relieve these nasty headaches. However, regular exercise, enough sleep and stress management are important for long-term relief.


According to American Migraine Association, migraines are estimated to affect 36 million Americans. Those suffering from migraines feel a throbbing pain on one side of the head, usually accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light, sound and smell.

Some migraine causes include stress, lack of sleep, changes in diet and hormonal changes, and those prone to migraines can be triggered by changes in weather. Each episode can last up to three days, and this condition tends to be chronic.

Over-the-counter painkillers can ease the pain, along with resting in a dark and quiet room, hydrating and placing a cold pack on the forehead. If the condition recurs often, see a doctor to find more treatment options.

Sinus headaches

Sinus headaches typically accompany sinus infections or allergies. Those affected may feel a throbbing pressure around the eyes, nose and cheeks, in addition to a runny nose, congestion and sensitivity to light and sound.

Without these nasal symptoms, the headache is most likely a migraine or another issue.

A doctor will prescribe antibiotics for a sinus infection, which should relieve the headaches. If the headaches are due to allergies and are recurring, over-the-counter painkillers or nasal decongestants (such as Flonase) should do the trick.

Caffeine-related headaches

Depending on caffeine to get through an eight a.m. lecture is one thing, but needing coffee for fuel to get through the day can lead to a caffeine addiction. That’s right—caffeine addictions are a real thing. It may not be a serious issue, but it can lead to painful headaches.

Those addicted to caffeine can feel migraine-like headaches when they skip caffeine for the day, or even when they’re late for the first coffee in the morning. For instant relief, either running to Starbucks for a latte or taking over-the-counter painkillers can do the trick.

Unfortunately, there is no quick and permanent fix for caffeine-related headaches. Limiting caffeine intake or going cold turkey are the only ways to get rid of these headaches for good. Don’t worry—symptoms should subside within seven days of complete withdrawal.

Cluster headaches

These headaches are not common, and tend to be chronic and very painful. Cluster headaches are described as sudden and intense burning or throbbing pain behind one eye, and can be accompanied by a runny nose, agitation or sensitivity to light and sound.

According to Medical News Today, “A bout of regular attacks, known as a cluster period, can last a few days, weeks, or months,” and each attack can occur for 15 minutes up to around three hours.

Over-the-counter painkillers are not effective in treating cluster headaches because attacks come on too suddenly for the medicine to take effect in time. If experiencing a period of cyclical attacks lasting weeks or months, talk to a doctor about possible treatments.

With most mild, non-chronic headaches, light exercise, hydration and a regular sleep schedule can truly make a difference and help improve symptoms. Feeling like headaches are really making a negative impact on your life? Head to Student Health Services and find out what’s messing with your head.

For more information about these five headaches, along with additional types, check out Medical News Today.

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