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Headaches during pregnancy

3-minute read

Headaches in women can often be triggered by a change in hormones during pregnancy. Expectant mothers may experience an increase or decrease in the number of headaches. Unexplained, frequent headaches later in your pregnancy could be a sign of a more serious condition called pre-eclampsia, so tell your doctor if this is the case.

Causes of headache during pregnancy

Many women experience headaches during pregnancy, especially in the first and third trimesters. If you're pregnant, you may notice an increase in the number of headaches you have at around week 9 of your pregnancy.

As well as hormonal changes, headaches in the early stages of pregnancy can be caused by an increase in the volume of blood your body is producing.

Other causes of headaches during pregnancy can include:

Migraine

Migraine is a particular type of headache that mostly occurs on one side of the head – it can be either moderate or very painful. People who experience migraine can also feel sick or vomit, and be sensitive to light or sound.

In pregnancy, migraine may get worse for the first few months, but for many women it can improve in the later stages of their pregnancy when the level of the hormone oestrogen stabilises. Other women may experience no change or a decrease in the number of migraine headaches while pregnant. Some women may experience differences in migraine during different pregnancies.

Treatment

It’s not advisable for pregnant women with migraine to use migraine medicine. For other headaches it's also recommended that you try to treat your headache without medicine.

You could try:

  • getting more sleep or rest and relaxation
  • pregnancy yoga classes or other exercise
  • practising good posture, particularly later in your pregnancy
  • eating regular, well-balanced meals
  • putting a warm facecloth on your eye and nose area, if it is a sinus headache
  • putting a cold pack on the back of your neck, taking a bath or using a heat pack, if it is a tension headache
  • neck and shoulders massage

Pregnant women who experience migraine should avoid things that may trigger their migraine. This may include:

  • chocolate
  • yoghurt
  • peanuts
  • bread
  • sour cream
  • preserved meats
  • aged cheese
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • caffeine (withdrawal from)
  • bright or flickering lights
  • strong smells
  • loud sounds
  • computer or movie screens
  • sudden or excessive exercise
  • emotional triggers such as arguments or stress

If you do take medicine for your headache or migraine you should check with your doctor, pharmacist or midwife first. Paracetamol, with or without codeine, is generally considered safe for pregnant women to use but you should avoid using other pain medicine such as aspirin or ibuprofen.

When to contact your doctor

If you experience frequent headaches that don't go away with paracetamol, it could be a sign of a more serious medical condition called pre-eclampsia. This usually involves an increase in the pregnant woman's blood pressure and problems with her kidneys. There are also other serious risks for both you and your baby. Pre-eclampsia mostly occurs in the second half of pregnancy.

Contact your doctor, particularly if, along with your headaches, you have a pain below your ribs, feel like you have heartburn, you suddenly swell in your face, hands or feet, or you have problems with your eyesight.

Further information

  • Speak with your doctor or midwife, particularly if you have any concerns about pre-eclampsia
  • Phone Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak with a maternal child health nurse.
  • For more information about headaches during pregnancy, visit Headache Australia.
  • For more information about medication during pregnancy, see your doctor or pharmacist, or visit NPS MedicineWise.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2020


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