The term “vascular headache” is now outdated, but you or your doctor may still use it because it’s a familiar term. Vascular headaches formerly described all headaches that originated with changes to your blood vessels in your head and neck.

This term is no longer used by the International Headache Society. Headaches formerly classified as vascular headaches are now identified as migraines, cluster headaches, and illness-related headaches.

Read on to learn more about these headaches.

How are vascular headaches now classified?

In the past, the term “vascular headache” grouped together headaches related to changes in the blood vessels, including dilation and swelling. There are now different classifications for these headaches.

Migraines and cluster headaches are considered primary headaches. A primary headache has no underlying condition that is causing the headache.

Headaches caused by illness or another condition are known as secondary headaches. Certain secondary headaches caused by fever may have been formerly categorized as vascular headaches as well.


Migraines are a common type of headache, in women’s experience than in men’s.

Migraines often begin in adolescence and young adulthood. There’s no definitive cause of a migraine, but changes in your blood vessels and nerves may be significant factors.

Migraines can be triggered by factors that include:

Other triggers may cause migraines as well.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are even more severe than migraines but less common. These headaches are known as “cluster” headaches because they occur in clusters, generally once or more a day for a significant stretch of time.

Cluster headaches are thought to be related to blood vessel dilation. Possible causes of these headaches include:

  • nerves
  • circadian rhythm
  • histamine release
  • activation of the autonomic nervous system

Cluster headaches are in men between the ages of 20 and 40.

Often cluster headaches can be triggered by outside elements, including:

  • alcohol
  • histamines
  • tobacco

Secondary headaches caused by illness

You may also experience secondary headaches that are vascular. These occur when you have a fever from conditions like influenza, pneumonia, tonsillitis, and other conditions.

What are the symptoms?

Migraine and cluster headaches have unique symptoms. Symptoms of secondary headaches caused by fever from certain illnesses will vary and depend on your underlying condition.

Migraine symptoms

Migraines can last for several hours or even days at a time. You may experience a migraine regularly or very infrequently.

Symptoms of migraines include:

  • throbbing or pounding on one side of the head
  • sensitivity to light, sounds, and odors
  • lightheadedness
  • vision problems
  • anxiousness
  • nausea
  • vomiting or diarrhea
  • loss of appetite
  • pain that increases with physical movement

In some cases, you may experience an aura before the migraine symptoms set in. An aura is a sign that a migraine headache is approaching. Aura symptoms can include sensory disturbances, particularly vision changes, like seeing flashing lights or having blind spots.

Cluster headache symptoms

Cluster headaches occur frequently, often at the same time of day or multiple times a day. This pattern can last for several weeks or months.

The headaches can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours. You can get these headaches at any time of day. They can even wake you up in the middle of the night.

Symptoms of cluster headaches include:

  • stabbing and sharp pain on one side of the head or behind your eye
  • irritation in the eye and nostril on the affected side

How are they diagnosed?

Recurring headaches and severe headaches should be diagnosed by your doctor. Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms.

You may want to track your headaches and note the level of pain, duration, possible triggers, and other symptoms to help your doctor diagnose the condition.

Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose the headaches based on a physical exam and your tracked information.

You should see a doctor immediately if your headaches are:

  • sudden
  • accompanied by a stiff neck
  • related to a fever
  • related to head trauma
  • linked to pain in your ears or eyes
  • recurrent, especially in children

How are they treated?

Treatment for migraines, cluster headaches, and secondary headaches vary in nature.

Both migraines and cluster headaches may be reduced by avoiding triggers, but additional treatment may be necessary.

Migraines may be managed at home by lying down in a dark, quiet place and using a cool compress. You may also need medications to reduce migraines. These include over-the-counter and prescription options.

Some medications prevent migraines from occurring, and others target pain during an active migraine.

Cluster headaches may also require medication. And there are more invasive treatment options available for cluster headaches, including nerve stimulation and surgery.

Secondary headaches will likely be treated with the appropriate interventions for the underlying condition that’s causing the headache.

Can they be prevented?

Migraines and cluster headaches may be prevented if you can avoid factors that trigger them. For example, you may be able to prevent them by:

  • eliminating certain foods and drinks from your diet
  • reducing stress
  • avoiding tobacco
  • getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night

But it’s possible that you can’t prevent these headaches from occurring and will need your doctor’s help and other treatment options to reduce your symptoms.

What’s the outlook?

“Vascular headache” is an outdated term used to refer to certain types of headaches, including migraines, cluster headaches, and those caused by a fever related to another condition.

You should track your headaches and make sure to see your doctor if they are severe, recurrent, or associated with another illness.