Dear Mayo Clinic: How can you tell when a headache requires additional diagnostic testing?
A: Headaches come with a wide range of accompanying symptoms and severity. Most often, they are due to a primary headache disorder, such as a tension-type headache or migraine. In older adults, most headaches are still primary in nature.
However, older adults are more likely than their younger counterparts to experience a secondary headache disorder. A secondary headache is when the headache pain is a symptom of an underlying problem or condition. An "ice cream headache" is an example of a secondary headache that isn't a worrisome cause. However, some secondary headaches may be warning signs of something more serious, such as an aneurysm or tumor.
Certain "red flag" characteristics are more worrisome and should be discussed with your health care provider. Represented by the acronym "SNOOP4," these headache characteristics are:
-- Systemic symptoms
Headaches are accompanied by fever, chills, night sweats or unintentional weight loss.
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-- Neurologic symptoms
Headaches are accompanied by signs and symptoms, such as weakness, numbness, trouble walking, confusion, seizures, or difficulty staying alert or maintaining consciousness.
They begin suddenly or abruptly, such as a severe headache that peaks within one to two minutes (also known as a "thunderclap headache").