I am not sure which article to use in the following context:
- She has been suffering from a headache.
- She has been suffering from the headache.
Please clear up my doubt.
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Peter Shor hit on something very pertinent in his comment to Barrie England; when discussing maladies, sometimes English uses the, sometimes a, and sometimes no article at all:
Andy caught the flu.
Randy suffered from the mumps.
Candy had the measles.
Fred had a headache.
Ned had a sprained ankle.
Ed had a cold.
Fran has arthritis.
Ann has thyroid cancer.
Dan has depression.
Sure, the variants abound:
Candy had measles last summer.
Ed caught the common cold.
Dan had a bout of depression.
I would think that, in the context provided by the O.P.:
She has been suffering from a headache.
would be more common than:
She has been suffering from the headache.
but that doesn't mean the article the would never be used:
Last night, she had the headache of her life.
This medication will help alleviate pain from the headache.
(although, in that last example, I'd might be more apt to use alleviate headache pain, depending on the context).
J.R provides a great list of examples of article use in various diseases and conditions. His examples seem to suggest a vague pattern.
Chronic diseases and conditions - (arthritis, thyroid cancer, depression) usually take no article. They are not discrete but an ongoing state. Simiarly, tuberculosis, Lyme disease. There are exceptions. I have heart disease. However, I have a heart condition.
Diseases and conditions that you get many times - (headache, backache, cold) often are preceded by a when you aren't trying to distinguish this bout from a different episode. I had a cold last winter; but The cold I had last winter was a killer. There are numerous exceptions. I had the flu and I suffered from hay fever all summer.
Diseases and conditions that you get only once - (mumps, measles) when these take an article, often take the. But they sometimes do not take an article (chicken pox, rubella). And they may take a if proceeded by bout. I had a bout of measles.
In English, the definite article is used to refer to a specific, individual object. So to use the, the thing referred to must be already known to the listener/reader or have been identified in a previous sentence or be identified specifically in the same sentence.
I have a headache. I cannot move because of the headache.
I could not move because of the headache that had begun as soon as I thought about returning to work.
Here's one I couldn't resist, sorry...
We didn't have sex last night. She had the headache.
To use the definite article to refer to an unidentified object is to create for the listener/reader an expectation of significance yet to be explained. This can be used for powerful literary effect....
The man was there again; she would have to find another way home.
or, in a third person narrative, can simply indicate that the object is familiar to the protagonist (and is too commonplace to require explanation).
Anyway, to answer your question directly; "a headache" is the appropriate article in your example unless she regularly has a particular kind of headache in particular circumstances and this is known to the person with whom you are communicating.
Well, this is a good example of why learning English as a second language is difficult.
'She has a headache' is the normal way to speak, and 'She has the headache' would be used only to compare, if there is someone else who might have a headache. Otherwise, 'the headache' would definitely be a mistake, and point to the speaker as likely coming from European languages such as French which emphasize the definite article.
J.R. has a good set of examples, so maybe we can understand a little as to why these may occur — thus to try to put a little sense into a language mixed from others.
To not use an article at all, is to take a British custom. It wouldn't be done in American English, which may still be considered the most common International English.
Most of the time in American English we say 'a condition'. When 'the condition' is used, as in 'the gout', that's usually because the condition is a bit unusual or perhaps a bit socially undesirable, which seems to trigger the use of an archaic language form to distance it. Gout is after all a bit historic, and also associates (not at all necessarily fairly) to eating too many rich foods or gluttony.
These are indeed anecdotal and opinions, but based on having lived in the U.S., Britain, and Europe each for considerable time.