It’s National Ice Cream Month! What could be more perfect: the weather is warm, and Blue Bell has just released three new flavors. This means that we Texans are probably going to be experiencing an uptick in ice cream headaches. Though they can be agony for the few minutes that they last, these kinds of headaches are usually benign.

Luckily, a lot of headaches are like this: they come and go, and you don’t need to see a doctor about them. But sometimes a headache is a sign of a more grave underlying medical problem. How do you know when to take a headache seriously? When should you get medical attention?

The first answer is that you should see a doctor if a headache is unusual, doesn’t go away, happens after you hit your head, or simply has you worried. More specifically though, there are signs and symptoms to look for that indicate your headache could be a sign of something more serious.

SNOOP out Red Flags

The American Headache Society recommends using the mnemonic “SNOOP,” established by David W. Dodick, MD, to help identify headache red flags:

S: Systemic Signs and Symptoms–Those that affect your whole body, including fever, weight loss, chills, and night sweats. Having a history of HIV or cancer are also included.

N: Neurologic Signs and Symptoms–These include changes in behavior or personality, as well as double vision, ringing in the ears, confusion and changes in level of alertness.

O: Onset Sudden–Also called a “Thunderclap headache.” When a severe headache comes on in a split second.

O: Older–A new and progressive headache that comes on over the age of 50.

P: Previous Headache History–This is the first-ever headache, or the headache is different than others experienced. This can include a change in type, frequency, severity, or location.

Be Prepared When You See Your Doctor

If you think your headache is a sign of another underlying condition, or if it is simply hard to tolerate and getting in the way of your daily life, like a migraine, make an appointment to see your doctor. To get the most out of your visit come prepared: bring a list of prescribed and over the counter medications you have tried and whether they have worked or not. If the doctor is new to you, bring a list of past and current medical conditions. Finally, be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • How often do you get the headache?
  • How many of these headaches have you had?
  • How long do your headaches last?
  • Do you have any associated symptoms like nausea, light or sound sensitivity?
  • How does the headache disable you? Do you need to lie down?
  • Does it get worse with activity?
  • What is the headache pain like? Is it stabbing, aching, electric, sharp, dull, gripping, throbbing, stinging, itching, or burning?

Headaches are one of our most common ailments (ice cream headaches not withstanding), but they shouldn’t always be dismissed. A headache can really disrupt your life and can even be a sign of something more serious. A visit with your doctor can get you the help you need. In the meantime, enjoy that ice cream, just take it slow.