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Cluster headache - Symptoms of cluster headaches

The pain of a cluster headache starts quickly, without warning, and is described as excruciating.

The headache always affects one side of the head and is usually felt around the eye. Sometimes it affects the temples (forehead) and cheeks.

Most people feel restless and frustrated during an attack as the pain is so intense. They may react by rocking, pacing or banging their head against the wall.

An attack is relatively short, lasting between 15 minutes and three hours (but often less than an hour).

Pattern of attacks

Headache attacks occur in groups or clusters, which usually happen one to three (and up to eight) times a day. They occur every day for several weeks or months and are followed by a period of no headaches, which lasts for months or years (the average is one year). 

Cluster headaches usually affect the same side of the head, although they can sometimes move to the opposite side.

One in 10 people have chronic cluster headaches, where the attacks occur regularly without significant pain-free intervals.

During a period of cluster headaches, the headaches often occur at the same time each day. For example, people often wake up with a cluster headache within around two hours of going to sleep, at the same time each night or early in the morning.

Other symptoms

Cluster headaches are associated with one or more of the following symptoms:

  • inflammation (redness and swelling) of the eye
  • drooping and swelling of the eyelid
  • a smaller pupil during the attack
  • watering from the eye
  • sweating of the face
  • a blocked or runny nose on the affected side of the face

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