The most common symptom of giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a headache, although some people also experience jaw pain and vision problems.
The symptoms usually develop quite quickly, although many people report other symptoms, such as weight loss or tiredness, for weeks or months beforehand.
About two-thirds of people with giant cell arteritis experience a headache that develops suddenly. It most often affects the front or side of the head (temples), but can also affect the back or top of the head, or behind the ears. These areas may also feel tender.
Many people with giant cell arteritis have described the headache as unlike any type of headache they've experienced before. Painkillers, such as paracetamol, aren't usually effective at treating the pain.
Your scalp may also feel sore and tender when brushing your hair. In many cases, the arteries in the temples (temporal arteries) are visibly swollen.
Jaw pain and vision problems
Although less common, people with giant cell arteritis may also experience jaw pain (jaw claudication) and problems with vision.
Jaw pain typically occurs when chewing or talking. The pain usually stops when the jaw is rested. In some cases, the pain is felt in the tongue.
Vision problems affect about one in five people with giant cell arteritis. This can be in one or both eyes. It's been described as like having a shade covering your eye. Left untreated, it can lead to blindness.
Many people will experience episodes of double vision before the loss of vision occurs.
Other common symptoms of giant cell arteritis include:
- mild fever, with a temperature of 37-38C (98.6-100.4F)
- extreme tiredness
- loss of appetite
- weight loss
When to seek medical advice
It's very important that giant cell arteritis is treated as soon as possible to reduce the risk of blindness. However, this can be difficult because the initial symptoms of giant cell arteritis can often be vague.
Warning signs that your vision may be at risk include:
- suddenly developing a severe headache
- pain in your jaw muscles when eating
- double vision
- your scalp is sore or tender to the touch
Contact your GP immediately if you develop any of these symptoms. If this isn't possible, call NHS 111 or your local out-of-hours service.