Include guards

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A header file may be included by other header files. A source file (compilation unit) that includes multiple headers may therefore, indirectly, include some headers more than once. If such a header file that is included more than once contains definitions, the compiler (after preprocessing) detects a violation of the One Definition Rule (e.g. §3.2 of the 2003 C++ standard) and therefore issues a diagnostic and compilation fails.

Multiple inclusion is prevented using “include guards”, which are sometimes also known as header guards or macro guards. These are implemented using the preprocessor #define, #ifndef, #endif directives.


// Foo.h

class Foo    //  a class definition


The key advantage of using include guards is that they will work with all standard-compliant compilers and preprocessors.

However, include guards also cause some problems for developers, as it is necessary to ensure the macros are unique within all headers used in a project. Specifically, if two (or more) headers use FOO_H_INCLUDED as their include guard, the first of those headers included in a compilation unit will effectively prevent the others from being included. Particular challenges are introduced if a project uses a number of third-party libraries with header files that happen to use include guards in common.

It is also necessary to ensure that the macros used in include guards do not conflict with any other macros defined in header files.

Most C++ implementations also support the #pragma once directive which ensures the file is only included once within a single compilation. This is a de facto standard directive, but it is not part of any ISO C++ standard. For example:

// Foo.h
#pragma once

class Foo

While #pragma once avoids some problems associated with include guards, a #pragma - by definition in the standards - is inherently a compiler-specific hook, and will be silently ignored by compilers that don’t support it. Projects which use #pragma once are more difficult to port to compilers that don’t support it.

A number of coding guidelines and assurance standards for C++ specifically discourage any use of the preprocessor other than to #include header files or for the purposes of placing include guards in headers.

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