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Morning Headaches - What Causes Them?

Updated on April 22, 2017

Waking with a headache first thing in the morning or having a headache that just won’t clear can be wearing and worrying. Often it can take its toll on your morning routine and, when it’s regular, suck any sense of enjoyment out of the day ahead.

In this hub we’re going to look at 3 reasons why morning headaches can occur and what you can do about them.

Learn more about CO poisoning and how to prevent it.

Morning headaches – reason 1: carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

Perhaps one of the most serious causes of morning headache is carbon monoxide poisoning because it can lead directly to death. If you suspect you are suffering from CO poisoning you must seek medical help as a matter of urgency.

In the UK alone there are 50 deaths and over 4,000 hospitalisations of people who have been poisoned by carbon monoxide (chemical symbol CO) and this is thought to be an underestimation.

What is CO?

CO is a gas with no smell, no taste and no colour – so no human warning system. It comes from almost any appliance that burns fuel as it is the product of incomplete burning of coal, gas, oil or wood. So if you have a heater in your home that burns any of these fuels it is essential that it is properly maintained and serviced regularly.

What does CO do?

CO is a neurotoxin which means it attacks the nervous system and has a host of other ill effects on the body’s systems.

Most people know about its effect of replacing the oxygen molecules on haemoglobin (the blood transport system for oxygen). If there is too little oxygen in the blood because it’s been replaced by CO, then a person can die pretty quickly. See the ‘useful links’ box to the side here for the levels that cause certain problems.

However low grade exposure to CO, for example from a faulty heater etc in the home, won’t cause immediate death but will cause troubling symptoms. If this goes on for long enough then it can eventually cause death.

What are the symptoms of CO poisoning?

Dr Ed Walker is the medical adviser to the charity CO-Awareness (link in the side box) and says that chronic fatigue syndrome is the most common mis-diagnosis for CO poisoning.

There are other reasons for the symptoms listed below. But if your doctor doesn’t consider CO poisoning as part of the causes of them, point her towards Dr Walker’s page ‘Carbon Monoxide – the basic facts’ which is designed for health professionals. You can get to it via the link above.

Chronic low grade CO poisoning symptoms include:

  • Headache – worse in the home and better outside. It can happen anytime but if a CO-producing appliance is in the bedroom, morning headache can be a feature
  • Shortness of breath
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Lack of coordination
  • Memory loss.

Treatment for CO poisoning.

  • For short term high level exposure, hospital admission for oxygen therapy is needed.
  • For low grade exposure your general physician will be able to help.
  • If you have had long term exposure, hyperbaric oxygen therapy at a specialist centre will be required.

What can be done to prevent CO poisoning?

In the UK it is illegal for a boiler or water heater etc to be placed in a bedroom or bathroom but in other countries/states this may not be the regulation. This means that dangerous levels of CO can build while a person sleeps (or is relaxed in the bath) which can result in death.

If you are a home owner make sure you have your heating appliances serviced regularly – annually is recommended – by a correctly qualified engineer.

If you live in rented accommodation ask your landlord or the letting agent for the paperwork relating to your heaters etc and their servicing by an appropriately qualified engineer.

Good ventilation is essential. Our modern double glazing and insulation help up retain the heat but also prevent fresh air from circulating. Open the windows/doors regularly to help the air circulate.

Most importantly, get a CO alarm. Like a smoke alarm, every home should have one because CO has no smell, taste or colour. This is also very important for people on low incomes living in rented homes/apartments. Unscrupulous landlords may skimp on proper servicing so you may need to check for yourself that you are not in danger from CO.

About bruxism

Morning headaches – reason 2: bruxism.

Bruxism is the medical term for teeth grinding or jaw clenching while you sleep.

It’s often caused by:

  • Emotional issues such as stress/anxiety, anger that isn’t expressed or resolved, a competitive personality
  • Physical problems such as misalignment of the upper and lower jaws or as part of a disease such as Parkinson’s Disease or Huntington’s
  • Med side effects such as is seen with some antidepressant drugs
  • Drug side effects of amphetamines, ecstasy (‘E’), caffeine, tobacco or alcohol.

The symptoms of bruxism include flattened, worn down teeth, increased tooth sensitivity, jaw pain, earache, chronic facial pain, and of course headache.

Treatment for bruxism is often initiated by the dentist if it’s related to your teeth. He may fit a mouth guard which will protect the teeth.

Otherwise, look carefully at the possible causes of your bruxism and then for appropriate long term treatment – behaviour therapy, stress or anger management, avoiding stimulants and alcohol in the evening etc.

Read more about bruxism at sleepbetterlivebetter.net.

About sleep apnea

Morning headaches – reason 2: sleep apnea.

During sleep apnea you stop breathing for a few seconds many 100s times each night. This reduces the oxygen levels to the brain and can cause headaches among other things.

Sleep apnea is caused by tissues in the back of the throat and mouth relaxing when you’re asleep and falling into the airway (the throat), blocking it so that you stop breathing. The brain detects low blood oxygen levels when this happens and wakes you up – but these are wakenings that you don’t usually remember.

This chronic lack of oxygen and wakenings during the night can lead to symptoms of:

  • Very loud snoring and waking up gasping for breath
  • High blood pressure
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Headache.

Treatment will depend on the severity of your problem and a sleep specialist will be able to help you determine this.

Special pillows, a CPAP machine or mouth guards for sleep apnea may be the answer. It’s a serious problem so your doctor will listen to you – don’t dismiss loud snoring as a joke.

Weight loss is recommended if you’re overweight as this will reduce the amount of tissue at the back of the mouth/throat. Surgery is also an option.

See this hub for other causes of headaches.


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