Do you have a headache or a migraine?

Man with a headache


Headaches and migraines are a real pain in the neck, or well, a pain in the head, but how do you know if you’re dealing with a migraine or a headache?


Both of them cause a lot of pain in your head, but what is the difference between the two?


If you’re not sure whether the head pain that’s making you feel extra grumpy every Monday morning is a headache or a migraine then you’re in luck, as we’re about to break down what makes the two so different.


What is a headache?


Headaches are a common problem that many people deal with every day, especially after a wild Saturday night out!


It’s normally not a big deal, and many people just take some painkillers and are able to get on with their day without any problems.


Headaches normally last between 30 minutes and a few hours, so you usually won’t have to deal with a headache for long if you’re struggling with one.


Headaches can be caused by lots of different things, which is a part of why they’re so common. Some of the things that can cause headaches include:


  • Stress and anxiety
  • Tiredness
  • Dehydration
  • Drinking too much alcohol or a hangover
  • Not eating regular meals
  • Your period
  • Menopause
  • Cold and flu
  • Bad posture
  • Eyesight problems
  • Taking too many painkillers



Headache symptoms


Headaches have only one symptom, and it’s exactly what it says on the tin – an ache in your head.


When you have a headache you’ll typically feel a constant ache that can cover your whole head, rather than a throbbing pain in just the front or side of your head.


You normally won’t experience any other symptoms with a headache, but if a headache is caused by another illness, like cold and flu, then you’ll find your headaches will clear up when your other symptoms pass too.



Types of headaches


There are a few different types of headaches, and they all feature a similar head pain but can have different causes and last for different amounts of time.


Let’s look at the most common kinds of headaches.


Tension headache


Tension headaches are the most common kind of headaches, so much so that you’ll probably just think of them as a regular, everyday headache.


They can happen at any time, for lots of different reasons and normally only stick around for several hours at most.


You normally won’t have to worry about a tension headache, just wait for it to pass and forget about it, but if you get headaches several times a week or they’re severe, make sure to get them checked out with your doctor.



Cluster headaches


Cluster headaches are a lot more painful than your average headache and the pain will usually be focused on one side of your head, usually behind your eye.


People who have had cluster headaches describe the pain as feeling like a sharp burning or piercing sensation and it’s usually on the same side of your head every time you experience one.


There are a couple of other symptoms you might experience with a cluster headache, including:


  • A red or watering eye
  • A drooping or swelling of one eyelid
  • A smaller pupil in one eye
  • A blocked or runny nose
  • A sweaty face


Cluster headaches normally begin when a person is in their 30s or 40s, so if you experience a cluster headache for the first time, make sure to see your doctor as soon as possible.


They’ll be able to help you to manage your symptoms and work out what triggers your headaches.


Sinus headaches


Sinus headaches are usually a symptom of sinusitis, which is when your sinuses swell because of an infection.


You might get sinusitis after having a cold or the flu, and as well as a headache you might notice symptoms like pain and swelling around your cheeks eyes or forehead or a blocked nose.


When your sinuses swell due to sinusitis, this can put pressure on your forehead, making you feel blocked up and giving you a sinus headache.



Hormone headaches


Lots of women experience hormone headaches as a part of their menstrual cycle, as they’re caused by changes in your hormone levels that happen as a normal part of your monthly cycle.


They usually appear in the 2 days that lead up to you starting your period or during the first 3 days of your period.


They can be worse when you’re approaching menopause or when you’re pregnant, as the hormonal changes in your body become more extreme.


It can also be caused or eased by the contraceptive pill, as some of them change the levels of your oestrogen hormones.


What is a migraine?


Well now we know what a headache is, lets look at migraines and how they differ from headaches.


If you have a migraine you will probably still feel head pain, which is why they’re often confused with headaches, but this pain will usually be focused at the front or on one side of your head. This pain will also last longer than a typical headache, with some lasting up to 72 hours.


However, some people might experience migraines without having a headache, as migraines have other symptoms that can be just as uncomfortable as your head pain.


These other symptoms are what really differentiates a migraine from a headache, which won’t have any other symptoms at all unless you’re dealing with a cluster headache.



Signs of a migraine


So, what other symptoms can you experience with a migraine?


There are a few other things you can look out for when you’re feeling the pounding pain in the side of your head. Some of the other migraine symptoms you might have to deal with include:


  • Feeling sick
  • Vomiting
  • Increased sensitivity to light or sound
  • Struggling to concentrate
  • Feeling very hot or cold
  • Sweating
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhoea


None of these symptoms are particularly pleasant, but they can all happen alongside your headache when you’re dealing with a migraine.


Another sign you might want to look out for when you’re dealing with migraines is known as a migraine aura.



What is a migraine aura?


A migraine aura is essentially your body’s way of warning you that you’re about to have a migraine. They normally happen before your migraine can the symptoms can last for up to an hour.


Auras have their own unpleasant set of symptoms that you can look out for, including:


  • Visual problems, such as blind spots, or seeing zig-zags or flashing lights
  • Numbness or a tingling sensation, this will normally start in one hand and then move up your arm to your face
  • Feeling dizzy or off balance, or vertigo
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Loss of consciousness – this is unusual


Migraine auras aren’t fun, but sometimes you can experience an aura without experiencing a headache at all afterwards. Small comfort when you’ve already had to deal with the aura anyway!


What causes migraines?


Although the exact cause of migraines isn’t known, there are lots of triggers that people have noticed tend to induce a migraine.


These triggers are different for everyone, so it can be wise to keep a diary of when your migraines happen so you can try to work out when and what triggers them for you.


Some of the most common migraine triggers you may want to keep track of include:


  • Hormonal changes, e.g. menopause, your menstrual cycle, pregnancy
  • Emotional triggers, e.g. stress, anxiety, depression
  • Tiredness or not getting enough sleep
  • Dehydration
  • Not eating regular meals
  • Alcohol or caffeine
  • Bright lights, loud noises, strong smells
  • Certain medications, e.g. sleeping tablets, the contraceptive pill, HRT



Types of migraines


Just like headaches, there are different kinds of migraines that you might suffer with.


Let’s take a look at the different kinds of migraine and how they differ from each other and every day headaches.


Migraine without aura


The most common type of migraine, these affect 70 – 90% of people and can last between 4 and 72 hours.


Although you won’t experience any of the warning signs that come with a migraine aura, you may still experience the other symptoms of a migraine as well as your throbbing headache.


Migraine with aura


This is a migraine where you experience the aura symptoms I described earlier in this guide.


10 – 30% of migraines have an aura, and some of the next migraine on our list is a type of migraine with an aura.



Hemiplegic migraine


This is a particularly rare kind of migraine and it has a very specific set of symptoms.


If you suffer with hemiplegic migraines you will normally experience temporary paralysis on one side of your body when you get a migraine.


Sometimes, the symptoms of a hemiplegic migraine are mistaken for a stroke, as the paralysis and other symptoms, such as difficulty speaking or confusion, are similar to those of a stroke.


These symptoms usually go within 24 hours, but can be very distressing for those who experience them.


Chronic migraine


Migraines are considered to be chronic if you experience a migraine headache on more than 15 days of every month.


Chronic migraines are estimated to affect less than 1% of the population, but can be very debilitating to those who do suffer with them.



Menstrual migraine


The final type of migraine we’ll be looking at today is the menstrual migraine, which is similar to a hormone headache in that it happens during your menstrual cycle.


These migraines are triggered by the hormonal changes in your body during your monthly cycle, usually happening in the 2 days leading up to your period or during the first 3 days of your period.


As if shark week wasn’t fun enough without an extra helping of migraine, right?


How to treat headaches and migraines


If you’ve got a headache or a migraine you’ll probably want to know how to get rid of it so you can get back to living your best life.


Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered, let’s see which treatments are the best way to go for both headaches and migraines.


Headache relief


The best way to treat an everyday tension headache is by taking some ibuprofen or paracetamol, popular painkillers that many people reach for when they need a little help managing pain.


These will normally clear a headache right up so you can get on with your day.


However, if you’re dealing with cluster headaches or hormone headaches you’ll need a different course of treatment which can be provided by your doctor, so if you have one of these headaches make sure to discuss your options with them.



Migraine treatment


When you’re suffering with a migraine of any kind, you’ll want to find relief fast and luckily, they can usually be eased by the same ibuprofen and paracetamol that can help you to ease your headaches.


However, you might find that these painkillers aren’t quite enough to keep your migraines under control, so your GP might have to prescribe something a little stronger to help you to deal with the head pain and other symptoms.


Other things that might help include lying down in a dark room, which helps to limit your exposure to bright light or loud noise, eating something or being sick.


Depending on your own migraine symptoms, you might want to try any one of these.



Well, that wasn’t so painful, was it? And now we know all there is to know about migraines and headaches and how you can tell the difference between the two.


Remember, if your headaches last for a long time, are particularly strong, or feel like they’re different to your regular every day headache, you should check in with your doctor as soon as possible.


When you’re dealing with head pain, it’s always better to be safe than sorry!



Laura Henderson - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 22 September 2021
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