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How To Tell If Your Headache Is a Migraine: The Warning Signs

by Scott McDougall (MPharm)

Scott is one of the two founders of The Independent Pharmacy. He is a registered pharmacist and the registered manager of our service with the CQC.

We’ve all experienced painful headaches before; whatever the reason, it’s a common ailment that usually passes within a few hours. But when the pain is particularly bad, it can be hard to tell whether a headache you’re experiencing is ‘just a bad headache’ or a migraine. Discovering the answer can make treatment quicker and more effective.

Despite how common they are, headaches can be hugely debilitating. What differentiates a severe tension headache from a migraine usually depends on a few specific criteria – or warning signs.


Demystifying migraines 

Migraines are just one type of (particularly bad) headache, and they tend to come with some marked tendencies. The first is that the pain is often moderate to severe – it’s rare to have a migraine that only results in a mild headache. Sometimes the pain can be severe enough that people end up seeking medical help.

But that’s not the only symptom. Another common tendency with migraines is experiencing an aura; that is, a neurological symptom such as blurred vision, difficulty speaking, numbness or a tingling sensation. Migraines can occur with or without an aura.


The warning signs 

Migraines can be tricky, as not everyone will experience these additional symptoms. But if you do experience a headache alongside one or any of these signs, then there’s a chance you could be having a migraine:

  • An aura (as described above), visual disturbances
  • Stomach problems, such as constipation, diarrhoea or nausea
  • Increased sensitivity to light or noise
  • Feeling very hot or cold, sweating
  • Sudden fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Muscle stiffness and cramping
  • One-sided, throbbing pain
  • Frequent urination 

The symptoms can last for anywhere between a few hours to a few days. It’s also common to feel tired for several days following a particularly bad migraine. 


Migraine vs. headache: the main differences

Aside from migraines, the most common types of headache include cluster headaches, tension headaches, and secondary headaches. These are defined as follows:

  • Cluster headache: a particularly painful form of headache, it occurs in cyclical patterns, often starting in the middle of the night and producing intense pain around the eyes or on one side of the head
  • Tension headache: probably the most common type of headache, where pain can range from mild to intense. A tension headache can manifest as a feeling of tightness around the forehead and cause pain in the neck or behind the eyes
  • Secondary headache: this type of headache is one that presents itself as the result of another condition; sinusitis, for example. By contrast, migraines, cluster headaches and tension headaches would all be considered primary headaches


Why it’s important to know the difference 

The main reason why it’s worth being able to distinguish a migraine from a tension headache, for example, is so that you can choose the most appropriate form of treatment. Medication for migraines often differs slightly to that which is recommended for a headache.


Headache treatment 

Headaches can be treated fairly easily with over-the-counter painkillers, such as Nurofen Plus Tablets. These contain Ibuprofen and Codeine and should be taken with water every six hours as required, up to three times daily. 

Other pain relief alternatives include aspirin, paracetamol, and Ibuprofen. Relaxation techniques such as massage or meditation can also help to relieve headaches. 


Migraine treatment 

On the other hand, treating migraines effectively sometimes requires more than just a regular painkiller. Triptans and anti-nausea medications can help to relieve some of the other associated symptoms. The Independent Pharmacy stocks Sumatriptan (generic Imigran), a form of anti-migraine medication that stops the blood vessels in the brain from widening and stabilises some of the chemical changes that occur. Triptans are considered the most effective treatment for halting a migraine attack when you can feel it coming on.

Sumatriptan is prescription-only and should not be taken in excess of 300 mg over 24 hours. Visit our blog for more information on what is Sumatriptan and how it works.

If you suffer from migraines regularly, your doctor may suggest additional lifestyle changes, such as eliminating certain foods and chemicals from the diet (particularly alcohol and caffeine) and taking steps to reduce stress levels.

If you have any queries or concerns about migraines, you can visit our advice area

Authored By:

A photo of  Scott McDougall

Scott McDougall


Published on: 28-11-2017

Last modified on: 28-11-2019

Scott is one of the two founders of The Independent Pharmacy. He is a registered pharmacist and the registered manager of our service with the CQC.

Reviewed By:

A photo of Dr Donald Grant

Dr Donald Grant

MB ChB DRCOG MRCGP Dip.orth.med

Reviewed on: 28-11-2019

Next review date: 28-11-2021

Dr Don Grant is a GP with over 30 years experience and is the Clinical Advisor at The Independent Pharmacy

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