A migraine is usually a moderate or severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on 1 side of the head.
Many people also have symptoms such as feeling sick, being sick and increased sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraine is a common health condition, affecting around 1 in every 5 women and around 1 in every 15 men. They usually begin in early adulthood.
There are several types of migraine, including:
- migraine with aura – where there are specific warning signs just before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights
- migraine without aura – the most common type, where the migraine happens without the specific warning signs
- migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache does not develop
Some people have migraines frequently, up to several times a week. Other people only have a migraine occasionally.
It's possible for years to pass between migraine attacks.
When to get medical advice
You should see a GP if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms.
Simple painkillers, such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, can be effective for migraine.
Try not to use the maximum dosage of painkillers on a regular or frequent basis as this could make it harder to treat headaches over time.
You should also make an appointment to see a GP if you have frequent migraines (on more than 5 days a month), even if they can be controlled with medicines, as you may benefit from preventative treatment.
You should call 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone you're with experiences:
- paralysis or weakness in 1 or both arms or 1 side of the face
- slurred or garbled speech
- a sudden agonising headache resulting in a severe pain unlike anything experienced before
- headache along with a high temperature (fever), stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision and a rash
These symptoms may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as a stroke or meningitis, and should be assessed by a doctor as soon as possible.
Causes of migraines
The exact cause of migraines is unknown, although they're thought to be the result of temporary changes in the chemicals, nerves and blood vessels in the brain.
Around half of all people who experience migraines also have a close relative with the condition, suggesting that genes may play a role.
Some people find migraine attacks are associated with certain triggers, which can include:
- starting their period
- certain foods or drinks
There's no cure for migraines, but a number of treatments are available to help reduce the symptoms.
- painkillers – including over-the-counter medicines like paracetamol and ibuprofen
- triptans – medicines that can help reverse the changes in the brain that may cause migraines
- anti-emetics – medicines often used to help relieve people's feeling of sickness (nausea) or being sick
During an attack, many people find that sleeping or lying in a darkened room can also help.
If you suspect a specific trigger is causing your migraines, such as stress or a certain type of food, avoiding this trigger may help reduce your risk of experiencing migraines.
It may also help to maintain a generally healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, sleep and meals, as well as ensuring you stay well hydrated and limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
If your migraines are severe or you have tried avoiding possible triggers and are still experiencing symptoms, a GP may prescribe medicines to help prevent further attacks.
Medicines used to prevent migraines include the anti-seizure medicine topiramate and a medicine called propranolol that's usually used to treat high blood pressure.
It may take several weeks before your migraine symptoms begin to improve.
Migraines can severely affect your quality of life and stop you carrying out your normal daily activities.
Some people find they need to stay in bed for days at a time.
But a number of effective treatments are available to reduce the symptoms and prevent further attacks.
Migraine attacks can sometimes get worse over time, but they tend to gradually improve over many years for most people.
Page last reviewed: 10 May 2019
Next review due: 10 May 2022