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Do I have a migraine or just a headache?

Migraines are severe, debilitating headaches that can last from a few hours to a few days. Usually migraines are not a serious health problem, but they can certainly interfere with your life. If you get bad headaches, you may wonder whether you might be suffering from migraines.

So how do you know if a headache is a migraine? Migraines have certain characteristic symptoms that you can spot.

Who gets migraines?

Migraines most often affect people from ages 15 to 55 years, and they often get less severe as you get older. No one knows for sure what causes them. Certain factors make it more likely that you will have migraines:

  • Being a woman: Women suffer from migraines three times more often than men.
  • Family history: Most people with migraines have relatives who’ve had them.

The symptoms and stages of migraine headaches

So, when is a headache a migraine? Certain symptoms are specifically associated with migraine attacks and are different from regular headaches:

  • Diarrhea
  • Blurred vision
  • Experiencing aura before a headache
  • Headaches that are debilitating
  • Headaches that are triggered by certain factors
  • Intense throbbing or pounding
  • Lightheadedness or fainting
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pain on only one side of your head
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Severe pain that often starts in the morning

Migraines also have several stages:

  • Prodrome stage: One or two days before a migraine attack, you may notice things like depression, constipation or diarrhea, cravings for certain foods, irritability, hyperactivity or stiffness in your neck. This can signal an oncoming attack.
  • Aura: See the section on aura, below. Not everyone with migraines experiences this stage.
  • Attack stage: See the section above on migraine symptoms.
  • Postdrome stage: This is the final phase, and happens after a migraine attack. You may feel drained, or sometimes even a little better than normal.

The aura of a migraine

One characteristic of migraine headaches is experiencing aura. The term “aura” refers to special sensory symptoms that usually happen 10 to 30 minutes before the onset of a migraine attack:

  • Changes in your sense of smell, taste or touch
  • Feeling “fuzzy” mentally
  • Feeling numbness or tingling in your face or hands
  • Pins and needles in your arms or legs
  • Loss of vision
  • Seeing things like blind spots, flashes of light or zigzagging lines
  • Speech problems

Only 20% of people with migraines experience aura. Men are more likely than women to have this symptom.

Common migraine triggers

Migraines can also be triggered by certain regular factors. If your headaches happen in combination with any of these things, you may be dealing with migraines:

  • Bright lights, loud noises or strong smells
  • Changes in hormones related to your period
  • Changes in the weather
  • Consuming food or drinks that contain aspartame
  • Drinking alcohol, especially red wine
  • Eating foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG), like fast foods or seasonings
  • Eating foods with nitrates (like cold cuts or hot dogs)
  • Eating foods with tyramine, such as old cheeses, soy products, smoked fish or fava beans
  • Getting too much sleep
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Relaxing after periods of stress
  • Skipping meals
  • Stress or anxiety

Headaches vs. migraines

Tension headaches can be painful, but unless your pain is severe or debilitating, you probably don’t suffer from migraines.

Symptoms of regular headaches are distracting pain that is mild to moderate in intensity and a steady aching on both sides of your head. Like migraines, they can be brought on by tension and stress, but usually they aren’t incapacitating.

When is a headache serious?

If you have migraine symptoms, if your headaches are happening often or disrupting your life, or if you’ve recently had a head injury, it may indicate more than a regular headache.

If your headache happens suddenly or in combination with fever, stiff neck, confusion, seizures, convulsions, double vision, weakness, numbness or trouble speaking; if you have new headaches and are over 50 years old or if you have a headache that gets worse when you cough or exert yourself, go to the emergency room right away.

What can I do if I do get migraines?

You can reduce the number of migraine attacks you have by doing these things:

  • Avoid things that you know trigger your migraines
  • Don’t have too much caffeine
  • Don’t skip meals
  • Eat healthy
  • Exercise regularly
  • Get up and go to bed at the same times every day
  • Limit your alcohol intake
  • Lower your stress level

There are ways to manage your migraines so they don’t interfere too much with your life. If you’re still not sure whether your headaches are migraines, or if your headaches are concerning you, it may help to keep a headache diary. In your diary, you should record the times your headaches occur, how often they happen, what you eat or drink in the 24 hours before your headache started and details about your menstrual cycle (if you’re a woman). This can help you get a better understanding of what might be happening and what you want to do about it.

Want more information and support? Search “headache” in Find Support for organizations in your area.

Migraine or just a headache?