If Your Headache Feels Like This, Call 911 Immediately

Here's how to recognize a life-threatening headache, according to experts.

Whether from stress, dehydration, a migraine, or viral illness, we all experience headaches from time to time. And while this fact might make headache symptoms easier to brush off as a "normal" inconvenience to endure, experts warn that there's one type of headache that you should never dismiss. If you notice the defining features of this particular type of headache, call 911 right away to rule out several potentially fatal conditions. Read on to learn how to recognize this life-threatening type of headache, and why it's crucial to get help quickly.

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If you experience a "thunderclap headache," call 911 immediately.


While the vast majority of headaches are benign and will resolve on their own without treatment, some are considered life-threatening, the Harvard Health Blog explains. "An excruciating, sudden-onset headache known as thunderclap headache (TCH) is a medical emergency, very different from more common headache disorders such as migraine and tension headache. If you develop TCH, you should call 911 or immediately go to the closest hospital."

Time will be of the essence as your doctors rule out life-threatening causes of a thunderclap headache. Causes of a TCH can include bleeding in the brain, a tear in the lining of an artery, a blood clot in the brain, a dangerous elevation in blood pressure, stroke, encephalitis, and more, according to the Mayo Clinic. ​​"TCH is associated with a variety of causes, ranging from benign to potentially fatal. Urgent evaluation in an emergency setting is needed to quickly identify and treat any underlying condition," says Harvard Health.

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Here's how to recognize a thunderclap headache.

Woman with a headache

Thunderclap headaches live up to their name: They occur suddenly and with striking intensity. Typically, a thunderclap headache will reach peak levels of pain within one minute of onset, and will last at least five minutes before your symptoms improve.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, you may experience additional symptoms in the event of a thunderclap headache. These can include numbness, weakness, speech difficulty, nausea or vomiting, seizures, vision changes, and new confusion.

You may be able to minimize your risk.

woman in her 60s wearing a fitness tracker and workout clothing, taking a break from exercising, opening a water bottle.

Thunderclap headaches appear without warning, making them difficult to prevent. However, by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, managing underlying conditions, and avoiding specific triggers such as overly-strenuous physical activity, you may be able to reduce your chances of experiencing one, the Cleveland Clinic says.

Individuals with high blood pressure, vascular problems, high cholesterol, or a family history of blood clots may be at heightened risk for the conditions that cause thunderclap headaches. Healthy diet, exercise, refraining from tobacco use, and following any treatment plan recommended by your doctor can help reduce your risk.

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Recurrent thunderclap headaches can have serious consequences.

Holding hand in hospital bed

Some cases of TCH are considered idiopathic, which means they occur spontaneously with no known underlying cause. However, other patients experience recurrent thunderclap headaches, which can occur within a short time frame. "In such cases, imaging invariably shows alternating areas of narrowing and dilation (the appearance is described as 'a sausage on a string') of multiple brain arteries," explains Harvard Health. "This condition is called reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome, or RCVS. RCVS can also develop in patients with a single TCH."

Among patients with RCVS, between 30 to 50 percent will eventually develop brain hemorrhage, stroke, or brain swelling, warn the Harvard experts. "Despite these possible complications, people with RCVS generally do well; the flurry of TCHs usually subsides within days, and the arterial narrowing resolves on its own within a few weeks," they add.

However, just because the condition can resolve on its own doesn't mean you should attempt to endure it alone. Call 911 for emergency medical assistance if you experience a thunderclap headache. Failing to do so quickly can be fatal.

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Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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