Headaches are one of the most common causes of pain and missed days of work. But what are the key signs that a headache might be due to dehydration? There are many different kinds of headaches and 9 out of 10 adults will experience one at some point in their life. Some of the different kind of headaches, such as dehydration headaches, can be easily treated and avoided. This article explores what a dehydration headache is, what signs indicate a person may have one, and how they might treat or prevent it.
What is a dehydration headache?
A dehydration headache is a secondary headache, caused by not having enough fluid in the body. Dehydration headaches can be relatively mild or severe as a migraine. The body requires the proper balance of fluid and electrolytes to function properly. Every day, the body loses water through daily activities, such as sweating and urinating. Most of the time, the amount of fluid lost is easily balanced through drinking or eating fluid-rich foods. However, sometimes the body loses water faster than it can be replenished. During these times, the body can become dehydrated, which can lead to complications including unpleasant dehydration headaches. When the body is dehydrated, the brain can temporarily contract or shrink from fluid loss. This mechanism causes the brain to pull away from the skull, causing pain and resulting in a dehydration headache. Once rehydrated, the brain plumps up and returns to its normal state, relieving the headache.
A dehydration headache can feel like a dull headache or an intense migraine. Pain from a dehydration headache can occur at the front, back, side, or all over the head. Unlike a sinus headache, a person experiencing a dehydration headache will likely not experience facial pain or pressure. Pain is also unlikely to occur in the back of the neck as it might with a tension headache. Since dehydration headaches only occur when the body is dehydrated, symptoms of dehydration will occur with the headache. These symptoms include the following:
- extreme thirst
- reduced urination
- dark-colored urine
- dry, sticky mouth
- loss of skin elasticity
- low blood pressure
- increased heart rate
Some people may only experience a dehydration headache if they are severely dehydrated. These people may not only have a headache and some of the above symptoms but also experience some further symptoms. Further symptoms of severe dehydration that people with a dehydration headache may experience, include:
- lack of sweating
- sunken eyes
- shriveled skin
Dehydration headaches only occur when a person is dehydrated. Even mild dehydration can cause a dehydration headache. Dehydration happens when the body does not get enough water to meet its needs. Most of the time, the amount of liquid going into the body matches the amount of liquid exiting the body. Water exits the body through sweat or urination. However, certain factors can disrupt this. These factors increase the risk of dehydration and include the following:
- extreme sweating, either from heavy exercise or heat
- excess urination
- Risk factors for dehydration
Anyone can be dehydrated. The chances are that everyone will experience times of at least mild dehydration. However, some individuals are at higher risk for being dehydrated. People at higher risk of dehydration include:
- people who live in higher altitudes
- infants and young children
- elderly people
- people with chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and kidney disease
- people who take medications that increase urine output
- endurance athletes
- people who live in hot climates
These groups of people should take special care to stay properly hydrated.
Treating a dehydration headache
To treat a dehydration headache, addressing both the pain and the dehydration is the best approach to get relief. If a person has a dehydration headache they should do the following:
- increase fluid intake
- replace lost electrolytes with a sports drink
- temporarily decrease physical activity and avoid heat to reduce sweating
While the above measures may treat the dehydration, it can take a while for a dehydration headache to be totally relieved. For fast relief, a person may want to take an acetaminophen or ibuprofen for the pain.