Migraine or Headache: How to Tell the Difference

Have you ever wondered whether you’re having a migraine or just a “regular” headache? It can be hard to tell the difference!

man wonders if he h;as a headache or migraine

Recognizing one from the other is important though. It can help you:

  • Get better treatments
  • Find faster relief
  • Help prevent the headaches/migraines in the first place

Now that you know how imperative it is to be able to tell the difference, let’s get started!


Headaches are pains in your head that can cause pressure or aching. This pain is typically mild to moderate. A headache usually occurs on both sides of your head. Headaches can be as short as 30 minutes or even as long as a week unfortunately. Some common areas where people experience headaches include the:

  • Temples
  • Forehead
  • Back of the neck

The Mayo Clinic has established that the most common form of headache is a tension headache. The following are some common triggers for this type of headache:

  • Anxiety
  • Muscle strain
  • Stress

Of course, there are many other types of headaches besides tension headaches. Other common forms of this pesky pain include:

Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches, as the name might suggest, occur in conjunction with sinus infection symptoms like the following:

  • Facial pressure
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Stuffy nose
  • Congestion

Sinus headaches are easily and frequently confused with migraines.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches get their name from the fact that they occur on one side of the head. However they are not as severe as migraines, which is a good way to tell the difference. Other symptoms that might come with a cluster headache are:

  • A watery eye
  • A runny nose
  • Nasal congestion


woman suffering from severe migraine symptoms

While headaches range from mild to moderate, migraines range from moderate to severe. Some are even severe enough to send the sufferer to the emergency room.

Migraine headaches can sometimes affect both sides of the head at once, but usually they just affect one side. Another difference between a headache and a migraine is that a person can usually work or go to school despite having a regular headache. A migraine, on the other hand, can make daily life extremely difficult. Sometimes people have to lie in bed in a dark room all day when they have a migraine.

Migraines are more severe and intense than typical headaches. They also often have symptoms other than head pain. Some of these unpleasant accompanying effects include:

  • Throwing up
  • Seeing spots
  • Seeing flashing lights
  • Nausea
  • Pain behind one of your eyes or ears
  • Pain in your temples
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Sensitivity to sound
  • Temporary vision loss

Migraines have two main categories:

  1. Migraines with an aura
  2. Migraines without an aura

An aura consists of the symptoms someone might experience before getting a migraine attack. Examples include the following:

  • Tingling or numbness in the face and hands
  • Seeing flashing lights or usual lines
  • Usual sense of:
    • Smell
    • Taste
    • Touch
  • Having issues thinking or being mentally alert

Some people might even feel symptoms a full day or two before the actual migraine. This is known as the prodrome phase. Some examples of things that can happen during the prodrome phase include:

  • Depression
  • Neck stiffness
  • Unusual food cravings
  • Frequent yawning
  • Constipation
  • Irritability

As you can tell, migraines can be extremely painful and inconvenient. They can put you out of commission for a day or two and even send you to the emergency room in especially bad cases. Unfortunately an estimated 29.5 million Americans suffer from migraines according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Treating Your Headaches


The good news for headache sufferers is that most tension headaches can be cured through simple inexpensive over-the-counter medicines. Some examples include the following:

  • Ibuprofen
  • Aspirin
  • Acetaminophen

Relaxation Techniques

The majority of common headaches are stress-induced. This means that relaxation techniques are key when it comes to relieving pain and preventing future headaches. Some great relaxation techniques include:

  • Neck stretching
  • Relaxation exercises
  • Heat therapy
    • Applying warm compresses
    • Taking a warm shower
  • Massage
  • Meditation

Treating Your Migraines

Preventing Your Migraines

As with myriad illnesses and many things in life, prevention is your first line of defense. Here are some preventative methods that work for some migraine sufferers, but make sure your doctor okays any new plans of action before you begin:

  • Taking steps to reduce stress
  • Making changes to your diet. Some foods and drinks are known to cause migraines, including:
    • Alcohol
    • Caffeine
  • Taking prescription medications such as:
    • Antidepressants
    • Antiepileptic medications
    • Blood pressure lowering medications
  • Improving your sleep habits. Poor sleep habits can definitely be a migraine trigger. It’s best to have regular sleeping patterns to decrease your risk. (Bonus: it benefits your overall health too!)


If you suffer from frequent migraines, your doctor may recommend getting on a medication that prevents them. There are some different prescription drugs on the market that are known to reduce migraines efficiently.

bottle of migraine medication

Some of these include:

  • Antinausea medicines
    • Promethazine (Phenergan)
    • Chlorpromazine (Thorazine)
    • Prochlorperazine (Compazine)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
    • Acetaminophen
    • Aspirin
    • Naproxen sodium
    • Ibuprofen
  • Triptans
    • lmotriptan (Axert)
    • Rizatriptan (Maxalt)
    • Sumatriptan (Alsuma, Imitrex, and Zecuity)

However, watch out for rebound headaches! Rebound headaches can sometimes occur when someone takes migraine headache medication more than 10 days a month. This will obviously make the problem worse instead of better. Your doctor will be able to give you guidelines on the medicine that he or she prescribes for you.


Identifying whether you have a headache or a migraine is an important first step in getting better. We hope you have found this article helpful! Both headaches and migraines are painful and can have a negative impact on your quality of life. Treating them as early as possible can put you in the best position for minimizing your chances of headaches in the future. Don’t hesitate to consult your healthcare professional if you have any questions.



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