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Severe Headache Triggers

Forty to 50 million Americans suffer from headaches. And chronic headaches affect an estimated 4 to 5 percent of Americans, including as many as 10 percent of women over 30.

Chronic daily headaches are characterized by headaches 15 times a month or more. Their triggers may include overuse of over-the-counter pain medications, hormones and other environmental, lifestyle and dietary causes.

Dr. Christine Lay, a neurologist at the St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Headache Institute in New York City visits The Early Show on Monday to discuss ways to recognize and avoid the potential triggers of chronic headaches.

Urgent attention is needed if a headache is accompanied by weakness, numbness or double vision. The frequency of the headaches should be a guideline for seeking help with headaches. Dr. Lay says that if you get headaches two or more times a week, or headaches are increasing in frequency, see a doctor.

The following is her advice on the triggers below:

Over-The-Counter Pain Medications
Many patients go for the quick fix when they get a headache and reach for over-the-counter pain medications. But if the headaches are chronic, over-the-counter pain medications can lead to more severe headaches. Constantly taking such medications like Advil (ibuprofen), Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Excedrin (aspirin, tylenol and caffeine) can start a vicious cycle where you get a headache, take the medication, get another, and take more medication.

Prescription pain relievers can also result in the same cycle. You can get to the point when you're on these pain medications every single day and they're not doing anything to help your headache. They can actually start to be the cause of the so-called "rebound" headache.

Researchers think the body's natural pain-fighting mechanisms are involved. If you take a lot of pain medications, you can stall your body's own natural pain-fighting mechanisms, and therefore your body can't fight pain properly anymore. Over-the-counter medicines are safe and effective for a variety of aches and pains, but you need to make sure you read the labels and follow the directions.

Hormone Fluctuations
For women, hormone fluctuations can be part of the problem. Women are three times more likely to suffer chronic headaches than men, and 60 to 70 percent of women report migraines at some time during their menstrual cycle. Birth control and contraception choices can be a factor in causing headaches. A non-cycling birth control pill that allows you to skip a period might be an alternative for some women affected by birth control hormones.

Weather can also be a trigger for chronic headaches. As the storm approaches, the pressure drop might reduce the amount of oxygen available to the body and cause a headache.

Lifestyle Factors
Lifestyle factors like irregular sleep and dietary choices are other common ways that headaches can be triggered. Some types of alcohol, cheeses, or smoked meats can cause brain blood vessels to expand and trigger headaches, or cause the production of brain chemicals that cause inflammation. Large amounts of caffeine can also trigger headaches.

When it comes to recognzing headache triggers, keeping a diary and noting sleep schedules, weather changes and dietary choices around the time of the headache occurrence can be useful.

Dietary restrictions and sleep schedule adjustments are some avoidance techniques that can be tried. When it comes to avoiding the triggers, timing is as important as what you eat. Triggers build to a threshold, and they can act together to build up to the point where they cause a headache. Recognizing multiple triggers should provide strategies for avoiding headaches. For instance, a woman might want to avoid common dietary triggers during her period. There are also numerous prescription options for headaches, including a new drug that can help prevent migraines.

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