What’s the Difference Between Migraines and Headaches?

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Oftentimes, pain is overwhelming, especially when we’re talking about a migraine vs. a headache. Of course, headaches are always unpleasant, but when a migraine comes, it can bring more pain and some additional (and very unwanted) symptoms with it.

It’s important to be able to distinguish a migraine from a headache because these two conditions need to be treated differently.  In most cases, headaches are easy to get rid of. Migraines require more effort and special migraine medicine. So, here’s a guide for you on how to notice the difference between a headache and a migraine, how to treat them, and how to prevent a migraine headache.

Understanding Headaches

Having a headache means feeling a very unpleasant pain in your head, which oftentimes causes the feeling of pressure. It can occur on both sides of your head, in the forehead area, temples, and even the back of the neck. Headaches come and go suddenly – they can last for various time periods, from minutes to a whole week.

There are different types of headaches, some of which are sometimes confused with a migraine. Let’s take a look at them:

  • a tension headache is the most common type, which can be a result of stress, anxiety, or muscle strain;
  • cluster headaches occur on one side of the head, are very painful and come in clusters, which means they come and go in circles;
  • a thunderclap headache is very strong and develops really fast, in 60 seconds or even less (it can be a symptom of an illness, stroke, aneurysm, or severe injury; if you ever experience such a headache, you should call the ambulance right away);
  • sinus headaches feel similar to migraines, but they are just a result of a sinus infection.

There are other headache types but they are quite rare, and you’ll probably never experience them (thankfully).

What’s the Difference Between Migraines and Headaches?

Understanding Migraines

The main difference between a migraine and a headache is the strength of the pain and the additional symptoms a migraine can cause. Migraines are severe and intense and can be accompanied by nausea, pain in the temples and behind an eye, light and sound sensitivity, vomiting, seeing flashing lights and spots, and even a temporary loss of vision.

Another tip that can help you distinguish a migraine is the location of the pain. With headaches, we usually experience pain in the both sides of the head, while migraines usually occur on only one side.

There are two types of migraines: with and without an aura. Aura migraines usually imply experiencing particular symptoms or sensations before the actual pain appears. They can alert you and prepare you for an upcoming migraine, as they usually occur 10-30 minutes earlier, and they include seeing flashing lights, having an unusual sense of taste, smell, or touch, having troubles thinking clearly, having a tingly feeling in your hands or face, etc.

Sometimes you can feel a migraine coming even a couple of days before. If you suddenly start feeling depressed, irritated, have the unusual food cravings, yawn too often, or feel stiffness in your neck, those might be the signs of an upcoming migraine.

Don’t mean to worry you, but a migraine headache can be caused by many things, including alcohol consumption, emotional anxiety, hormonal changes in your body, stress, contraceptives, and even menopause. Knowing the main migraine triggers will help you prevent it in the future.

How to Treat Headaches

The easiest way to get rid of a headache is taking medicine, for example, ibuprofen and aspirin. There are some relaxing techniques you can try if you want a more natural treatment. For example, heat therapy has proven to work really well. You can take a warm shower or apply a warm compress, and this will reduce the pain levels. Massages and meditation are also effective. Even a simple neck stretching can make your headache disappear.

Keep in mind that, in most cases, headaches are caused by stress, so if you want to prevent them, try to relax more often.

How to Treat and Prevent Migraines

When we look at the “migraine vs. headache” comparison, the main thing that separates these two types of pain is the way we treat them. Migraines are much harder to cure, especially when they occur frequently.

Doctors usually prescribe pain relievers (mild or moderate) or anti-inflammatory medicine (non-steroidal), for example, acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and so on. Sometimes anti-nausea meds can help too, such as chlorpromazine or promethazine. But keep in mind that taking migraine drugs for more than 10 days in 1 month can cause even worse headaches than you had before. So, be careful with medications.

If you suffer from regular migraines, you need to think about the ways to prevent them. Sometimes it’s more effective than constantly trying to cure them. Try to avoid food and drinks that usually cause migraines, for example, coffee or alcohol. Listen to your body, observe, and learn what dietary habits influence your migraines, and then get rid of those habits. Depending on your overall health condition, your doctor might prescribe you some blood pressure-lowering drugs or antidepressants, which can also prevent the migraine headache occurrence. And finally, try not to be too stressed out. Meditate, relax, and have enough rest. This will not only prevent migraines but also make you healthier and happier.

Hopefully, this guide will help you cope with headaches and migraines. And don’t forget to take good care of yourself!


  • Engel, Joyce. “Migraines/Chronic Headaches.” Behavioral Approaches to Chronic Disease in Adolescence. Springer, New York, NY, 2009. 155-161.
  • Wells, Rebecca Erwin, et al. “Complementary and alternative medicine use among adults with migraines/severe headaches.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain 51.7 (2011): 1087-1097.
  • Goadsby, Peter J., Richard B. Lipton, and Michel D. Ferrari. “Migraine—current understanding and treatment.” New England Journal of Medicine 346.4 (2002): 257-270.

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