Headache prevalence, characteristics and impact in adults were measured using a cross-sectional general population survey in North Staffordshire, UK. A postal survey was mailed out to 4885 adults (aged > or = 18 years) with an adjusted response rate of 56% (n = 2662). Of respondents 93% reported headache ever and 70% in the last 3 months. Women and younger people reported higher headache prevalences. Of those reporting headache in the last 3 months, 23% experienced headache at least weekly and 16% experienced severe headache pain. Headaches affected work, home or social activities in 43% of sufferers and 20% reported at least moderate headache-related disability. Higher levels of disability were associated with higher levels of pain, 61% with severe disability reporting severe pain compared with 13% who had mild or moderate disability. In the total adult population sample headache affected more than two-thirds in the last 3 months and 14% of all adults reported headache-related disability of at least moderate level, which translates to a large burden in the general population.