What causes pregnancy headaches, how to get rid of them and when to see a doctor

Pregnancy headaches are common, but it’s important for expectant mothers to understand their causes, how to manage them and when to seek medical advice.

A pregnant woman on the sofa with her eyes closed whilst experiencing pregnancy headaches
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Pregnancy headaches can be common, especially in the early stages of your pregnancy, and although most headaches during pregnancy aren’t a cause for alarm, it's important to know what the red flags to look out for are and when to see a doctor. 

One of the many symptoms of pregnancy experienced from the first trimester, headaches are a common complaint of pregnant people. 

"Pregnancy is a period of immense joy and anticipation, but it can also bring about a range of physical discomforts, including headaches," says Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist Dr Shazia Malik. "These headaches can vary in intensity and frequency, making it important for expectant mothers to understand their causes, management strategies, and when to seek medical advice."

Alongside Dr Shazia Malik, we also consulted highly experienced GP Dr Semiya Aziz, and the two doctors shared their advice on the causes of pregnancy headaches, safe and simple measures that can be tried at home to relieve them, and what red flags you should look out for so you know when to speak to a doctor. 

The information in this article is for general purposes only and does not take the place of medical advice. It is essential to be guided by your GP and take note of official NHS advice. You should immediately seek medical attention if symptoms worsen or you are concerned about any element of your pregnancy. If you are unsure or worried about your symptoms, then it is crucial to seek personalised advice from a doctor as soon as possible. 

What causes pregnancy headaches?

"Headaches are quite common during pregnancy, especially in the first and third trimesters. As the body undergoes significant changes, many women experience increased headaches," explains Dr Malik. 

"Headaches during pregnancy can be induced by several different factors which include hormonal changes, increased blood volume, changes in blood pressure, stress factors, fatigue, dehydration and hunger," says Dr Aziz. "Other common triggers include strong smells, bright lights, certain foods or a lack of sleep."

"Headaches that occur in early pregnancy are often due to a sudden surge in hormones. Other associated symptoms in pregnancy such as morning sickness and fatigue, which can cause dehydration, may also lead to a headache," Dr Aziz adds. 

How to get rid of headaches during pregnancy

"While it may not be possible to completely prevent headaches during pregnancy, several strategies can help manage them," says Dr Malik.  

Dr Aziz advises that, "Initially simple measures that can be carried out at home should be tried" and the following general measures to try to relieve and manage pregnancy headaches were suggested by the two doctors:  

  • Stay hydrated: Drinking enough water is important in general throughout your pregnancy and can also help with pregnancy headaches.
  • Eat balanced meals: Eating balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals will help stabilise your blood sugar levels, which can help contribute to reducing headache frequency and severity.
  • Reduce stress: Managing stress appropriately is important in general, and in addition to helping with pregnancy headaches it can also help with other symptoms such as pregnancy constipation. To help reduce stress you can try relaxation techniques such as breathwork, mindfulness, self care or regular, gentle exercise, as recommended by a healthcare provider.
  • Ensuring adequate sleep is achieved: Getting rest in a quiet, dark room may help to alleviate headache symptoms, as will maintaining a regular sleep schedule.
  • Identify and avoid triggers: Identifying certain triggers for your headaches such as foods, strong smells, and bright lights means that you can try and avoid them and reduce the frequency of your headaches. 
  • Use a cold pack: Dr Aziz recommends applying cold packs to the forehead or neck to help relieve pregnancy headache pain. 

If the above measures do not help relieve the headache, then you should see your GP and speak to a healthcare professional. They will be able to advise what pain medication might be safe to take during pregnancy. Dr Aziz warns, "Aspirin, ibuprofen or NSAIDS should be avoided." 

What are the red flags to look out for when experiencing headaches in pregnancy?

Dr Malik told us that understanding the nuances of pregnancy headaches is crucial for expectant mothers: "While most headaches are a normal part of pregnancy, being aware of when they might signify something more serious is important. With the right care and attention, most headaches can be managed effectively, allowing for a more comfortable pregnancy experience."

Dr Aziz advises, "If something does not feel right and the headache is severe, persistent or accompanied by other symptoms such as blurred vision, dizziness, swelling of the limbs, or high blood pressure and if these do not improve with rest and hydration then the pregnant [person] should seek medical advice."

Dr Aziz adds, "Red flags to look out for are sudden onset of severe pain, visual disturbances for example flashing lights or blind spots, signs of confusion, weakness, numbness, difficulty in speaking or a high fever. Any of these should prompt the urgent need to seek medical attention."

Dr Malik advises, "Most headaches during pregnancy are not a cause for alarm. However, if a headache is particularly severe, does not improve with rest or over-the-counter medication, or is accompanied by other unusual or significant symptoms (such as blurred or loss of vision, abdominal pain or bleeding, acute swelling of hands/feet, or persistent vomiting or loss of balance), please speak to a medical professional – and go to hospital if concerned. These could be signs of pre-eclampsia, a serious condition that requires immediate care."

The NHS states: “A headache can sometimes be a symptom of pre-eclampsia, which can lead to serious complications if it's not monitored and treated. Pre-eclampsia usually starts after 20 weeks of pregnancy.” Any of the following symptoms could be signs of pre-eclampsia and need to be checked immediately:

  • a severe headache
  • problems with vision, such as blurring or seeing flashing lights
  • pain just below your ribs
  • vomiting
  • a sudden increase in swelling of your face, hands, feet or ankles

NHS advice states that you should call your maternity unit, GP or NHS 111 if you have any of the above symptoms so that you can receive immediate care from a healthcare professional. 

Doctors answer some frequently asked questions about pregnancy headaches

Is it normal to wake up with a headache while pregnant?

Dr Malik says, "Waking up with a headache can be normal during pregnancy, often due to changes in sleep patterns, stress, dehydration or even blood pressure fluctuations. Ensuring a comfortable sleeping environment and staying well-hydrated can help mitigate these morning headaches."

Dr Aziz answers, "It is not uncommon to occasionally wake up with a headache in pregnancy. The causative factors include dehydration, low blood sugar, or poor sleep quality.” She also advises, “If however it becomes more severe or frequent then it would be important to speak to the healthcare professional."

How long is too long to have a headache during pregnancy?

Dr Aziz says, "There is no timeframe as to when one should be worried about a headache during pregnancy. If it is accompanied by other concerning symptoms, then medical advice should be sought irrespective of length of time."

Dr Malik adds that a headache that lasts more than 24 hours, or a severe headache (especially if associated with symptoms such as problems with vision, pain just below your ribs, vomiting or a sudden increase in swelling of your face, hands, feet or ankles) should be evaluated by a healthcare provider urgently.

Can low iron cause headaches during pregnancy?

"Occasionally headaches may be brought on by low iron levels,” Dr Aziz answers. “This is because iron deficiency anaemia may result in reduced oxygen transport to tissues and organs, including the brain, the effects of which may trigger a headache."

Dr Malik adds that "regular prenatal check-ups will include blood tests to monitor iron levels."

Why do I get bad headaches at night while pregnant?

Dr Aziz explains, "Factors that trigger headaches at night are principally the same as those that cause headaches during the daytime for example fatigue, stress, dehydration, changes in blood pressure or sinus issues. Good sleep hygiene and the management of stress, may be critical in helping to reduce night time headaches."

Dr Malik advises, "Nighttime headaches during pregnancy can be caused by various factors, including hormonal changes, stress, and physical discomfort. Ensuring a comfortable sleeping position and maintaining a cool, quiet sleep environment may help reduce the frequency of these headaches."

Why might I get a pregnancy headache after eating?

"Certain foods or beverages can trigger a headache, such as caffeine or foods high in additives or preservatives," says Dr Aziz. "Fluctuations in blood sugar levels or dehydration may also bring on a headache after eating."


The information on GoodTo.com does not constitute medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. Although GoodtoKnow consults medical experts to create and fact-check content, this information is for general purposes only and does not take the place of medical advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional or seek urgent medical attention if needed.

Our experts

Dr Shazia Malik
Dr Shazia Malik

Dr Shazia Malik is a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK). Dr Malik is also based at Barnet Hospital in London, where she balances a busy Obstetric workload with being the Early Pregnancy and Emergency Gynaecology lead. Dr Malik obtained her medical degree at the University of Liverpool in 1991, where she graduated with Honours and the Gold Medal in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. She then embarked in specialist training in obstetrics at some of the largest tertiary level units in the UK.

A headshot of Dr Semiya Aziz
Dr Semiya Aziz

Dr Semiya Aziz is a seasoned general practitioner with over 20 years of experience as a GP in both the NHS and in private practice. She first obtained her degree in microbiology from Queen Mary University of London, and subsequently, she obtained her MBBS from The Royal London Hospital. She is a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine. She is also registered with the Care Quality Commission (CQC) and the General Medical Council (GMC).

Rachael Martin
Digital journalist and editor

An internationally published digital journalist and editor, Rachael has worked for both news and lifestyle websites in the UK and abroad. Rachael's published work covers a broad spectrum of topics and she has written about everything from the future of sustainable travel, to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the world we live in, to the psychology of colour.