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Migraines vs headaches - How to spot the difference

woman with headache holding head
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What causes headaches?

We all get headaches from time to time. They're mostly easy to treat with over-the-counter painkillers, so it's matter of making sure you've got the right ones to hand when you need them. Migraines are less common, but there are also lots of ways you can try to avoid them and ease the pain.

Common types of headaches and their symptoms

When it comes to headaches, people will usually experience similar symptoms, which can often be attributed to dehydration, skipping meals, drinking alcohol to excess, lack of sleep, injury and poor posture. Migraines however, with their wide range of symptoms, vary significantly from person to person.

How to get rid of a headache: The best treatment for headaches

  • Ask your pharmacist about over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, ibuprofen or co-codamol - a combination of paracetamol and codeine. (Please note, because codeine is potentially addictive, it shouldn't be taken for more than three days in a row.
  • Cold packs placed on your head and making sure you're drinking enough water may also help.
  • Most people find that when experiencing a migraine, sleeping or lying in a darkened room is the best thing to do.
  • Some people prefer to use ibuprofen for headaches, but paracetamol is effective and has fewer side effects, so it's the usual first choice.* If you need to, you can take paracetamol alongside ibuprofen for added pain relief.* There are also combination products (paracetamol*and ibuprofen in one) available, such as Nuromol.

Tension headaches - These are the most common type of headache among adults and teens according to the NHS. They cause mild to moderate pain and come and go over time and usually have no other symptoms.

Cluster headaches - Cluster headaches are rare, but for the people living with them they can be an extremely serious and devastating condition. They tend to come on without warning and the pain can be very severe, often feeling like a burning or piercing pain behind or around the eye, temple and sometimes face.

Other symptoms tend to include:

  • a red or watering eye
  • drooping and swelling on one eyelid
  • a smaller pupil in one eye
  • a sweaty face
  • a blocked or runny nose

The attacks can last between 15 minutes and three hours, and occur between one and eight times a day.

What should I do if I’m experiencing cluster headaches?

If you think you are experiencing a cluster headache, make sure to see your GP as soon as possible. They will ask about your symptoms and may refer you for tests. If you’re diagnosed they will refer you to a specialist, such as a neurologist, to help you with your treatment options.

What treatments are available?

Over-the-counter pain relief, such as paracetamol that you might take for a tension headache, aren’t effective for cluster headaches because they’re too slow to take effect. Your specialist will recommend the treatments that they believe are right for you, but broadly speaking there are three main treatments available that can be used under the supervision of a doctor.

According to the NHS these are:

  • Sumatriptan injections – which you can give yourself up to twice a day
  • Sumatriptan or zolmitriptan nasal spray – which can be used if you don’t want to have injections
  • Oxygen therapy – where you can breathe pure oxygen through a face mask

If you’re living with cluster headaches and are looking for more advice, try Organisation for the Understanding of Cluster Headache (OUCH), they have lots of information and advice that can help you, from causes and diagnosis to preventatives and treatments.


This condition is accompanied by intense headaches. These are often described as pounding, throbbing pain. They can last from 4 hours to 3 days according to the Migraine Trust.

What causes migraines? Symptoms and common triggers

A headache isn't the only symptom of a migraine; you might also experience:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light or sound
  • sometimes visual disturbances

It's important to note however, not everyone will experience every symptom when they get a migraine. In fact, some people won't get a headache but will have the other symptoms.

1 in 3 migraines are triggered by stress or lack of sleep.* If you're experiencing migraines it's good to keep a pain diary so you know your own personal triggers. Here are a few common triggers that you may recognise:

Common migraine triggers to look out for from the NHS: 

  • Hormonal changes and medication in women
  • Foods, such as aged cheeses, salty foods, chocolate, red wine and processed foods may trigger migraines
  • Skipping meals or fasting also can trigger attacks
  • Food additives, like the sweetener aspartame and the preservative monosodium glutamate (MSG), found in many foods, may trigger migraines
  • Alcohol, especially wine, and highly caffeinated beverages may trigger migraines
  • Stress at work or home can cause migraines
  • Sensory stimuli, like bright lights and sun glare can induce migraines, as can loud sounds and strong smells, including perfume, paint thinner, second-hand smoke
  • Missing sleep or getting too much sleep may trigger migraines in some people, as can jet lag
  • Intense physical exertion, including sexual activity, may provoke migraines
  • A change of weather or barometric pressure can prompt a migraine
  • Medications, like oral contraceptives and vasodilators, such as nitroglycerin, can aggravate migraines

How to get rid of a migraine

If you're diagnosed with migraines, you may find relief with Imigran Recovery, which is only available from pharmacies, or similar prescription products.* Containing sumatriptan, Imigran Recovery isn't a painkiller, but it does help to reduce the swelling of the blood vessels which causes the pain when you have a migraine.

If you feel sick with a migraine, you can try a painkiller which also contains an anti-sickness medicine, such as Migraleve pink.* (Can cause addiction. Should only be taken for a maximum of three days.)

If you do experience migraines, try and take your medication as soon as you get the first signs of an attack.

Turn off migraine pain with Migraine TENS

Way to manage your migraines

Often triggered by what we eat and drink, keeping a food diary can be very helpful when tackling regular headaches or migraines. Drinks that contain caffeine, along with alcohol, or some specific foods, such as citrus fruit, can all be triggers. Additionally, the timing of when you're eating, missing meals or delaying having regular meals might also be the cause.

Don't forget, dehydration can also bring on headaches and migraines, so make sure you drink plenty of water throughout the day.

Stress is also a common trigger that you might experience. Unfortunately, we can't necessarily avoid stress, so here are some suggestions to help you reduce your stress levels:

  • Make sure all your phones, tablets or laptops are off before you go to bed to give your mind time to relax. Turning off your electronics can also help reduce the blue light they emit which can disrupt the production of melatonin and keep you awake.*
  • Keep work at work, don't be tempted to work long hours into the evenings.
  • Mindful meditation can help you to relax and take your attention from anxious thoughts or focusing on your pain. Visit bemindful.co.uk for more information.
  • Having regular breaks or holidays help you get away from the stress and strains of daily life.

Are there drug free alternatives for headaches and migraines?

Alternative treatments for both headaches and migraines include cooling products, such as 4head quick strip.

Speak to your pharmacist if:

  • Your headache doesn't respond to painkillers within a day
  • You get regular headaches
  • The pain is severe

Seek urgent medical help if:

  • Your headache follows a head injury
  • You've got other symptoms, such as a rash or high temperature
  • You get a sudden onset of a severe headache

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*Sleep.org 2018
Always read the label. Ask the pharmacist for advice.