Using a Triptan to Alleviate Your Migraine

How Triptans Relieve Migraines and What To Watch Out For

Sumatriptan Molecule. Molekuul/Getty Images

You may take a triptan—even carry one around in your briefcase or purse—to alleviate a migraine attack as soon as it presents itself. While triptans are generally safe and well-tolerated, they are not for everyone.

Using a Triptan for Migraine Relief

Triptans are used to treat moderate to severe migraines, as well as mild migraines that are not responsive to over-the-counter medications, like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories. They may also be used to treat mild-to-moderate migraines in people who cannot tolerate or take NSAIDs.

The Science Behind Triptans

Triptans bind to serotonin receptors in the brain. By activating serotonin receptors, blood vessels in the brain are narrowed and certain path pathways in the brainstem are blocked. Triptans are also believed to work by reducing the levels of CGRP—a protein elevated during migraine attacks.

The Various Types

Triptans are appealing because there are several different ways in which they can be taken. For instance, triptans can be taken by mouth, through the nose, or even injected with a needle into a person's fatty tissue (called a subcutaneous injection). There is also a triptan called Maxalt XLT (rizatriptan) that can rapidly dissolve in a person's mouth and is absorbed even if a person vomits. Finally, Imitrex (sumatriptan) can be given as a suppository.

Even more revolutionary is a triptan skin patch. Zecuity (sumatriptan) is a battery-operated powered transdermal patch that delivers sumatriptan through a person's skin. Zecuity, as well as injectable triptans, are particularly appealing for those who have nausea and vomiting associated with their migraines. That being said, in June of 2016, the FDA took Zecuity off the market due to concerns of serious burns and scars from people using the device. An investigation is now underway.

Potential Side Effects

Triptans are effective migraine medications. That being said, they are prescription medications and need to be taken under the care of a physician. Some common side effects with triptans include:

  • Nausea
  • Jaw, neck, or chest tightness or pressure or squeezing sensation
  • Fast heart rate or increase in blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Numb/tingling sensation (especially of the face)
  • Burning sensation of the skin

Triptans Are Not for Everyone

It's important to review your medical history and all your medications, including over-the-counter supplements and vitamins, with your personal physician. Some people should not take triptans because they could worsen an underlying health condition. For instance, you should not take a triptan if you have a history of coronary artery disease, stroke, peripheral vascular disease, uncontrolled high blood pressure, or hemiplegic or basilar migraine.

Triptans are also contraindicated in people who are concurrently taking monoamine oxidase inhibitors and should not be used on the same day as an ergotamine or dihydroergotamine.

Also, combining triptans with selective-serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) can result in serotonin syndrome. This is a potentially fatal, although rare condition that may cause a variety of symptoms like:

  • confusion
  • agitation
  • diarrhea
  • sweating
  • loss of balance
  • shivering
  • tremors
  • fever

Triptans in Women of Childbearing Years

In terms of pregnancy, triptan is a category C drug, which means that the risk versus benefit ratio must be weighed by the doctor for each individual patient. In terms of breastfeeding, the scientific data on using triptans for migraine therapy is limited—although, sumatriptan is considered compatible by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

If you are taking a triptan and plan on becoming pregnant or breastfeeding, please speak with your doctor to determine the best treatment plan.

A Word From Verywell

The exciting news about triptans is that there are new forms of delivery being currently developed, such as a sumatriptan tongue spray, zomitriptan inhaler, and rizatriptan mouth dissolving film.

Triptans are great options for treating migraines when given under the care of a physician. The unique route of administration is especially helpful in treating those who suffer from migraine-related nausea and vomiting. Be an advocate for your migraine health and speak with your doctor about whether a triptan is a good option for you.

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