What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?
“A key difference is that headache is just 1 symptom of migraine – it’s not the whole story,” says Dr. Ann Nainan, family doctor and Healthily expert. “Migraine is a neurological condition that’s more complicated.”
|•are “more than a bad headache”, according to the American Migraine Foundation. They’re a disabling neurological condition
||•are very common and most people get them – they’re usually tension-type headaches
|•can involve severe headaches and sometimes other symptoms such as sensitivity to lights, noise and smells, as well as nausea or vomiting
||•the main symptom is head pain that you can feel in different parts of your head
|•can be more complicated to treat than headaches
||•usually respond quickly to painkillers
How long do migraines last?
There are 4 phases of a migraine. You might not go through every phase and every migraine attack can be different.
An entire migraine attack can last from a bit more than a day to slightly more than a week – but they’re not typically that long. Generally, a migraine attack lasts 1–2 days.
The 4 phases of a migraine are:
- Prodrome migraine – the ‘pre headache’
How long it lasts: Several hours to several days
What to expect: Symptoms can appear up to 72 hours before the actual migraine kicks in. These symptoms can include:
- fatigue and yawning
- irritability or changes in mood
- difficulty concentrating
- food cravings
- stiff neck
If you tend to get prodrome with your migraines, you may be able to prevent a headache developing by taking medication and avoiding triggers during this phase. Read more in our migraine prevention article.
- Aura – symptoms before an attack
How long it lasts: 5–60 minutes. But for about 20% of people, aura can last longer than 60 minutes.
What to expect: Around 25% of people with migraines experience aura – symptoms that happen before an attack. Aura symptoms may include:
- flashes of light, dark or colored spots, sparkles or zigzag lines in your vision
- blind spots in 1 or both of your eyes – this is where a small spot in your vision blanks out and the blind spot can get larger
- tingling in your hands or face
- temporary blurred vision or loss of vision in both eyes
“A migraine aura without headache is possible – but auras do typically happen before the headache phase so the aura can be a warning sign to you that a headache is coming,” says Dr. Ann.
Migraine with aura sometimes gets mistaken for an ocular migraine – find out about the difference here.
- Headache – the migraine attack itself
How long it lasts: 4–72 hours
What to expect: It’s most common to get pain on 1 side of your head, but it can shift to the other side, or happen on both sides. Find out more about the symptoms of this phase in ‘what are the symptoms of a migraine attack?’
- Migraine postdrome – ‘the hangover’
How long it lasts: 24–48 hours
What to expect: Sometimes called the ‘migraine hangover’, you might get fatigue, body aches, dizziness, trouble concentrating and sensitivity to light.
Even though the headache is over, some people find that postdrome can be just as debilitating. You may benefit from avoiding triggers during this time and you may get relief from relaxation techniques such as yoga. Find out more about treating a migraine as it’s happening in our article, How to get rid of a migraine.
What does it feel like to go through migraine phases?
This quote from the National Migraine Centre’s website sums up a migraine attack, day by day:
“When I get a migraine, it makes me very ill and really puts me out of action. I can feel it coming on and then the full-blown migraine emerges and I feel terrible. As the second day progresses, the pain finally begins to lessen. The third day leaves me with a vague pain and feeling absolutely shattered.”
Status migrainosus is a particularly severe and long-lasting migraine headache. Although you can prevent them with the right treatment, attacks can last longer than 72 hours. If you have one you might sometimes need hospital treatment because symptoms can be severe.