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Cluster Headache

  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:


Cluster Headache


A cluster headache is severe pain on one side of the head. The pain comes and goes in groups called clusters.

There are 2 main types:

  • The episodic type happens one or more times a day. This continues for many weeks. The headaches then go away and come back months or years later.
  • The chronic type happens almost daily. Headache-free periods last less than a month.

Either type of cluster headache may switch to the other type.


The exact cause of cluster headaches is not known.

Some triggers may be:

  • Alcohol
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Strong smells
  • Weather changes
  • Bright or flashing lights
  • Medications, such as nitroglycerin

Risk Factors

This problem often starts in people who are 10 to 39 years of age. It is more common in men. Other things that may raise the risk are:

  • Family history of cluster headaches
  • Tobacco use


A person may have an aura before the headache starts. An aura may include vision problems or abnormal sensations.

The main problem is sharp, piercing, or throbbing pain that:

  • May start around the eye and spread to the same side of the head
  • Lasts 15 minutes to 3 hours
  • May happen at about the same time each day, usually at night
  • Starts suddenly and gets worse quickly
  • May wake a person from sleep

During the headache, a person may also have:

  • Restlessness and agitation
  • A stuffy or runny nose
  • Eye redness or watering
  • A droopy eyelid
  • Nausea
  • Facial sweating
  • Facial swelling
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
Symptoms of a Cluster Headache.

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The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. This includes questions about the frequency and pattern of the headaches. Physical and neurological exams will be done.

Images of the brain may be taken with:


There is no cure. The goal of treatment is to ease pain and reduce the number of headaches. Options are:

  • Avoiding triggers, such as changes in sleep patterns and alcohol
  • Medicine to:
    • Ease sudden attacks when they happen
    • Prevent or reduce the frequency of headaches
  • Breathing 100% oxygen for 10 to 15 minutes during a sudden attack

People who are not helped by these methods may need surgery. This is not common and can also result in side effects.


There are no known guidelines to prevent this health problem.





  • Cluster headache. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/cluster-headache.
  • Headache information page. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Available at: https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/headache.
  • Suri H, Ailani J. Cluster headache: a review and update in treatment. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2021;21(7):31.


  • Mark D. Arredondo, MD
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.