Migraine vs headache: What's the difference?


Headaches are among the most common types of pain. They can vary in intensity and duration. Most can be managed at home. However, if you have a headache alongside any of the following symptoms, you should see a doctor as soon as possible:

If you have any of the following, you should call an ambulance:

What's causing my headache?

  • Pain in your jaw when chewing
  • Pain in your scalp
  • Blurred or doubled vision
  • An extremely painful headache, associated with sudden speech or memory problems, loss of vision or confusion
  • A sudden headache which is extremely painful 
  • A headache along with a high temperature, drowsiness, stiff neck and a rash

There are many different causes of headaches. Known triggers include:

  • Bad posture 
  • Having a cold or the flu
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eye strain
  • Not eating regular meals
  • Not taking in enough fluids (dehydration)
  • Taking too many painkillers 
  • Menstruation (this can trigger what's sometimes known as a 'hormone headache')

Other types of headache, such as migraines and cluster headaches, are less well understood.

What is a migraine?

A migraine is a moderate to severe headache, and is often felt as a throbbing pain on one side of your head. It is frequently accompanied by feeling sick, vomiting and heightened sensitivity to light or sound. Migraines affect around a fifth of all women and roughly one in 15 men. They can occur at intervals of days, months or years.

There are two main types of migraine:

• Migraine with aura. An aura is one warning sign that a migraine is imminent. Some people see flashing lights, or experience blind spots in their vision

• Migraine without aura. This is the most common form

Prior to a migraine (with or without aura) you may experience changes in mood, low energy levels and loss of appetite. You should see your Doctor if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms.

What are cluster headaches?

These involve severe bouts of pain, often felt around one eye or the temple. Cluster headaches might last for minutes or hours, and can occur once or multiple times a day. They generally affect the same side of the head.

They begin without warning and can be debilitating, affecting your day-to-day activities. They commonly occur daily, lasting weeks or months at a time. This can be followed by a symptom-free period, known as remission, that might last months or years.

Cluster headaches are rare but are more common in men, and tend to start in those aged 30 and above.

Cluster headaches often have one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Watering eye
  • Drooping eyelid
  • Smaller pupil in one eye
  • Sweaty face
  • Blocked or runny nostril

If you suspect you’re experiencing cluster headaches, visit your Doctor. It may be you need to see a neurologist – a specialist in brain and nerve conditions – to explore treatment options.

What are the pain relief options for headaches?

Paracetamol and ibuprofen are often effective for mild-to-moderate pain, but migraines and cluster headaches may require other treatments, such as triptan-based medicines.

Triptans are specifically designed to relieve migraine and cluster headaches, and are available as tablets, injections and nasal sprays. Speak to your Doctor and pharmacist about treatment options.

How are headaches best avoided? 

For mild-to-moderate headaches, avoiding, or alleviating, the things that you find cause your headaches is the most effective approach.

  • Maintaining a good posture will help prevent tension headaches, as will regular exercise and relaxation.
  • Cutting out alcohol reduces the likelihood of headaches caused by dehydration, as does drinking enough water throughout the day.
  • Eye-strain headaches can be avoided by keeping your glasses prescription up to date, while eating regular meals will prevent headaches caused by a low blood-sugar level.
  • Prolonged use of painkillers is another trigger. It's thought that with overuse, painkillers can make the brain's pain sensors even more sensitive. Turning to non-medical pain relief, such as hot or cold compresses, can help. If painkillers don't help your headaches or seem to make them worse, you should seek medical advice.

Next steps

  • Exercise regularly, drink plenty of water and make time to relax
  • Consider paracetamol and NSAIDs for mild-to-moderate headaches
  • See your doctor if your headaches are severe or persistent, or if you're worried about them