Migraine vs. Headache: What Are the Differences?

It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between a migraine and a headache when you’re experiencing such a high level of pain and pressure in your head.

Read about the differences between a migraine and a headache, the similarities, and more in this overview.

Types of Headache and Migraines

Verywell / Zoe Hansen

What Is a Headache?

Headaches are among the most common types of pain that people experience. There are over 150 different types of headaches, but they can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Primary headache disorders: In these cases, headaches occur in absence of any other illness or disease. Migraine and cluster headaches are the two most common of this type.
  • Secondary headache disorders: This is when the headaches are symptoms of other conditions. These accompany colds, influenza, tumors, head injuries, and a range of other diseases, or are signs of other problems.

What Is a Migraine?

Since migraines don’t arise due to any other illness or trauma, they’re considered primary headache disorders. Migraine attacks produce a broader range of symptoms than headaches, and they last anywhere from four hours to several days.

Migraines progress through a series of stages. When they’re full-blown, they are often accompanied by nausea; vomiting; sensitivity to light, sound, and certain odors; and muscle weakness.

The exact causes of migraines are still being researched.

Migraine Triggers

Migraines are associated with their triggers, which are foods, stimuli, or other conditions that can bring on attack. These vary from person to person and can include:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Bright, flashing, or fluorescent lights, as well as the glow of screens
  • Certain foods, including dark chocolate, cured meats, aged cheeses, or pickled or fermented items
  • Some beverages, especially red wine or other alcohol, and coffee or tea in others
  • Hormonal changes, such as menopause or menstruation
  • Overuse of pain medications

Types of Headaches

There are many other types of headaches. Alongside migraines, the most common types are:

  • Tension headache: Tension headaches arise due to stress, eyestrain, hunger, and drinking alcohol. They represent the most common type.
  • Sinus headache: This type of headache is caused by increases in sinus pressure due to congestion, colds, or other illnesses.
  • Cluster headache: As the name implies, cluster headaches occur in bursts. These most severe of primary headache disorders can be triggered by overexertion, bright lighting, or changes in altitude.
  • Medication overuse headache (MOH): Frequently using pain medications can sometimes bring on headaches. Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and fever reducers like Tylenol can bring this on, as can triptans, ergotamines, and opioids.

Migraine Types

There are several recognized types of migraines, each with distinct characteristics. The most frequently seen of these are:

  • Migraine with aura: Seen in 15% to 20% of migraine patients, this type of migraine has an aura phase before the onset of headaches, nausea, and other symptoms.
  • Migraine without aura: Also known as “common migraine,” this is the most frequently seen type. It’s characterized by headache alongside light and sound sensitivity, nausea, and other symptoms, but there is no aura phase.
  • Silent migraine: Often referred to as “migraine without head pain,” this is when a person experiences aura symptoms, but there is no headache.
  • Hemiplegic migraine: This type of migraine causes temporary paralysis on one side of the body. It can also cause loss of sensation and dizziness while affecting vision.
  • Migraine with brainstem aura: Before the onset of headaches, this type of migraine causes vertigo, slurred speech, double vision, and loss of balance. Headaches tend to localize on the back of the head, and patients may have difficulty speaking, may vomit, and may have ringing in the ears (tinnitus).

How Many People Experience Chronic Migraine?

About 3% of people with migraine experience attacks 15 or more times a month. Chronic migraine can be particularly difficult to manage.

Symptoms of a Headache

Headaches differ a great deal in terms of severity, location, and duration, and different types of headaches produce different symptoms.

Tension Headache Symptoms

Tension headaches typically affect the forehead or the back of the head. The pain is characterized as:

  • Mild to moderate in intensity
  • Steady and not pulsing or throbbing
  • Affecting both sides of the head
  • Worse when leaning over or climbing stairs

In general, this type of headache is receptive to medications.

Sinus Headache Symptoms

Sinus headaches are the kind you might have when you have a common cold. Symptoms of this type include:

  • Pain localized in the cheeks, nose, and forehead
  • Bad taste in the mouth
  • Swelling in the face
  • Stuffiness in the ears
  • Pain worsening when moving
  • Fever
  • Mucus discharge

Cluster Headache Symptoms

The symptoms of cluster headaches are known to be intense and severe. In these cases, groupings of attacks, or clusters, occur daily or multiple times a day for distinct periods of two weeks to three months. These are followed by periods of remission, but they tend to recur.

Flare-ups of this condition cause:

  • Severe, burning, or stabbing headache pain
  • Pain located behind or near one eye without moving
  • Pain that can be throbbing or constant

Medication Overuse Headache Symptoms

In MOH cases, medications taken to treat headaches and other symptoms actually make the pain worse. They tend to arise if you’re taking drugs for more long-term headache problems. You may have this condition if:

  • Headache attacks become more frequent
  • You have headaches on more days than not
  • Your headaches are worse in the morning

Migraine Symptoms

Migraine symptoms range throughout the course of attacks, which progresses in stages. Each stage has a distinct set of signs, and individual cases and experiences can vary a great deal.

Prodrome Phase

The first stage of migraine, before headaches set in, causes the following:

  • Confusion, speech difficulties, and problems concentrating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light or odors
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Sleepiness and/or insomnia

Aura Phase

In those that have “migraine with aura,” there’s an “aura” stage right before the headaches set in. Lasting anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour, it causes:

  • Visual disturbances, such as seeing dots, sparks, flashes, or lines
  • Temporary blindness in one eye
  • Dizziness
  • Neck pain
  • Changes in the sense of smell or taste
  • Numbness and tingling

Headache Phase

The headache phase of migraine is when the attack is at its most intense. During this stage, which lasts anywhere from about four to 72 hours, the headaches are:

  • Moderate to severe
  • Throbbing or pulsing
  • Often located on one side of the head

Throughout the course, the headaches can move from one side to the other. Additionally, the headache phase leads to:

  • Severe nausea and/or vomiting
  • Severe sensitivity to lights, sounds, or odors
  • Hot or cold flashes, sweats
  • Dizziness
  • Pale skin (pallor)
  • Loss of appetite

Postdrome Phase

After the headache attacks have passed, the postdrome phase can last up to 24 hours. A kind of “hangover” or recovery period from the attack, this stage is characterized by:

  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Problems with comprehension
  • Euphoria

Migraine vs. Headache: Differences and Similarities

How Migraines Are Different

In many ways, a migraine should be thought of as more of a neurological disorder than a headache. A number of factors make migraines different than other types of headaches:

  • Causes: While migraines aren’t the only primary headache disorder, they do differentiate themselves from other types because they occur independently of other health conditions.
  • Associated symptoms: While some other types of headaches cause additional effects, migraine attacks are sometimes associated with nausea, light and sound sensitivity, and other symptoms.
  • Location of pain: Migraine headaches often occur on one side of the head, tending to move to the other side over the course of the attack. In contrast, sinus headaches focus on the forehead and face, tension headaches tend to wrap across the head and neck, and clusters are centered on or around the eye.
  • Diagnosis: As a primary headache disorder—and unlike headaches due to tumors or trauma—migraines can’t be diagnosed using imaging or blood tests.

What Migraines and Other Headaches Share

Migraines are one of a number of headache disorders, and they do share some similarities with these other disorder types.

The ways in which migraine attacks can resemble other types include:

  • Throbbing pain: Associated with migraine, throbbing or pulsing pain can also arise in cases of cluster headaches.
  • Long effect: Migraines, lasting anywhere from four to 72 hours, can have a similar duration as other types of headaches. For example, some tension and sinus headaches can also last for several days.
  • Common triggers: Cluster headaches can also be triggered by bright lights and certain stimuli. In addition, emotional stress and anxiety can lead to both migraines and tension headaches. Dehydration is another trigger shared by several types.

When to Seek Professional Treatment

While headaches are relatively common, you shouldn’t take them lightly. Since they can be signs of serious health issues, getting timely help can be critical.

Seek out emergency care if you experience any of the following:

  • The pain and intensity of the headache is greater than ever before.
  • You have problems speaking or articulating.
  • You’re experiencing confusion or other cognitive issues.
  • You have paralysis or problems moving.
  • You’re experiencing serious vision problems.
  • You experience loss of balance.
  • The headache comes on very suddenly.

Of note: If you’re taking prescribed medications to manage your migraines or other headache disorders, you may need to be careful. If you experience any of the following, call your doctor:

  • The general pattern of your headaches has changed.
  • Any medications you’re taking aren’t working anymore.
  • There are significant side effects from the drugs you’re taking.
  • You have started taking birth control or have changed your prescription.
  • You’re taking pain medications three or more days a week.
  • The headaches worsen when you’re lying down or leaning over.

Ways to Prevent Migraines and Headaches

Ways to Prevent Migraines

Migraine prevention is often multifaceted, involving several strategies including:

  • Medications: Preventative medications include beta-blockers, such as Tenormin (atenolol), Inderal LA (propranolol), or Toprol XL (metoprolol); tricyclic antidepressants like Elavil (amitriptyline) or Pamelor (nortriptyline); CGRP inhibitors like Aimovig (erenumab) and Ajovy (fremanezumab-vfrm); and anti-epileptic drugs like Depakote (valproic acid) and Topamax (topiramate), among others.
  • Relaxation: Since tension and stress are triggers, figuring out ways to promote relaxation can reduce attacks. Yoga, meditation, regular exercise, and taking part in relaxing activities can all help.
  • Getting good sleep: Sleep disruptions or disorders are closely associated with migraines. This is why you should ensure you’re getting an adequate amount of sleep (seven to eight hours a night for adults) and are going to bed and getting up at consistent times every day.
  • Exercise: A regular fitness routine can help with migraines in two ways: It can help manage obesity, a common risk factor, and it can improve the quality of sleep.
  • Keeping a migraine diary: Record when your headaches are happening, what they feel like, and how they last. Keep track of your triggers so that you can work to avoid them, and make note of how medications are working.
  • Other therapies: Acupuncture, a traditional Chinese modality that employs needle sticks to stimulate nerves, may also help reduce the frequency and severity of attacks. For some, Botox injections once every three months can help.

Ways to Prevent Headaches

Many prevention strategies for other kinds of headaches are the same as those you’d use for migraines. These include:

  • Figuring out ways to ease stress and tension
  • Keeping a regular sleep and eating schedule
  • Using good posture, especially if seated
  • Being careful of taking headache medications long term

A Word From Verywell

Whether you’re having a migraine or another kind of headache, it’s important to understand what you’re going through and what you can do about it.

If your symptoms are disrupting your daily life, if the pain is terrible, or if you don’t know what to do, get the help you need. The more proactive you are in fighting for your health and well-being, the better off you’ll be.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you treat a headache and migraine the same way?

    There is much overlap between approaches to migraines and other kinds of headaches. Most notable of these are:

    • Over-the-counter medications: Some migraine attacks, like other headaches, can be treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), naproxen, or aspirin.
    • Abortive medications: Some migraine medications prescribed after onset, such as triptans and opioids, may be attempted in other severe headache cases.
    • Caffeine: Some migraines, like other headaches, arise due to caffeine withdrawal. Drinking coffee or taking medication with caffeine may work to relieve the pain.

    Since there are important distinctions between migraines and other types of headaches, however, not all treatments for one will necessarily work for the other.

  • Which is worse: a migraine or a headache?

    Migraines are, generally speaking, on the more severe end, and the associated symptoms, such as light or sound sensitivity and nausea, can make them especially difficult. However, cluster headaches in particular are associated with very intense pain and are considered the most severe primary headache disorder.

  • Which lasts longer, a headache or a migraine?

    Migraines last anywhere from four hours to three days, so they tend to be longer than most headache episodes. But in some cases, tension headaches and sinus headaches can also last four or more days.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. MedlinePlus. Migraine.

  3. Penn Medicine. Migraine vs. headache: how to tell the difference.

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Headaches.

  5. International Headache Society. The international classification of headache disorders (3rd ed.).

  6. Ha H, Gonzalez A. Migraine headache prophylaxis. Am Fam Physician. 99(1):17-24.

  7. LoPinto-Khoury C. Is it a migraine or headache? Temple Health.

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Additional Reading

By Mark Gurarie
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer, editor, and adjunct lecturer of writing composition at George Washington University.