Merck Manual

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Reviewed/Revised Mar 2023
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What are migraines?

A migraine isn't just a bad headache. A migraine is a particular kind of bad headache. The pain can be on one or both sides of your head. You may feel sick to your stomach, throw up, and be extra sensitive to light, sounds, and smells.

  • Migraines usually last between 4 hours and several days

  • Migraines come and go and may happen only once in a while or many times a month

  • Migraines often start during puberty or when you’re a young adult, and they happen less when you’re over 50

  • Migraines are more common in women

  • You may be able to figure out things that trigger your migraines (such as red wine) and avoid them

  • Doctors can’t cure migraines, but they’ll give you medicine to lessen symptoms

What causes migraines?

You get a migraine when nerve cells and blood vessels in your brain are stimulated and disturbed. Doctors aren't sure why this happens to some people and not others. However, migraines do seem to run in families. So if you have family members who get migraines, you're more likely to get them.

What triggers migraines?

For people who get migraines, certain things can trigger them:

  • High levels of the female hormone estrogen—which occurs especially during puberty, before, during, and after a woman’s period, after childbirth, at the beginning of menopause, or when taking birth control pills (which contain estrogen)

  • Too much stimulation of your senses, such as flashing lights or strong smells

  • Stress

  • Too little sleep

  • Changes in the weather

  • Red wine

  • Hunger, especially from skipping meals

What are the symptoms of migraines?

You have pain in your head. Often the pain is pounding or throbbing and only on one side. But the pain can also be steady or on both sides. You'll also have other symptoms like:

  • The headache gets worse with moving around, bright light, loud noises, and strong smells

  • Feeling sick to your stomach or throwing up

  • Having trouble concentrating

Migraines aren't dangerous. However, migraines are very unpleasant. Most people can't do their normal activities during a migraine. Many people have to lie down in a dark room until the migraine goes away.

Warning symptoms of migraine

You may have some early symptoms before you get a headache:

  • Feeling less hungry than usual

  • Feeling sick to your stomach

  • Changes in mood

About 1 in 4 people with migraine have changes to their sight, speech, or movements just before the headache begins. This is called an aura. Some people get the aura but no headache, or only a mild headache. Symptoms of aura can include:

  • Seeing flashing lights or a blind spot with flickering edges (the most common aura)

  • Tingling feelings that travel up one arm

  • Loss of balance

  • Weakness in an arm or leg

  • Trouble talking

How can doctors tell if I have migraines?

Doctors can tell based on your symptoms and an exam.

Once doctors know you have migraines, they do tests only if a headache is different than your usual migraine. A different kind of headache can mean you have a different problem.

How do doctors treat migraines?

If you have a mild to moderate migraine, doctors will have you take:

  • Pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin

  • Medicines that relieve nausea, which can help both the nausea and headache

Doctors may tell you to lie down in a dark, quiet room and try to sleep. Migraines often go away during sleep.

If you have a severe migraine doctors may give you:

  • Medicines called triptans, which work best when given right away

  • Medicines for your nausea given through a vein (some medicines relieve both nausea and the headache)

  • Fluids through a vein if you're dehydrated (don't have enough water in your body) from throwing up

If you get frequent migraines, doctors may have you keep a headache diary to write down when you have a migraine, what caused it, and your treatment, so you can look for patterns.

How can I prevent migraines?

Doctors may give you medicine to prevent migraines if you have:

  • Migraines that come very often and aren't helped by other pain medicine

  • Very severe migraines that keep you from your daily activities

Other things that may help:

  • Activities to help you relax and lower stress

  • Avoiding things that cause your migraines

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
7T Gummy ES, Acephen, Aceta, Actamin, Adult Pain Relief, Anacin Aspirin Free, Aphen, Apra, Children's Acetaminophen, Children's Pain & Fever , Children's Pain Relief, Comtrex Sore Throat Relief, ED-APAP, ElixSure Fever/Pain, Feverall, Genapap, Genebs, Goody's Back & Body Pain, Infantaire, Infants' Acetaminophen, LIQUID PAIN RELIEF, Little Fevers, Little Remedies Infant Fever + Pain Reliever, Mapap, Mapap Arthritis Pain, Mapap Infants, Mapap Junior, M-PAP, Nortemp, Ofirmev, Pain & Fever , Pain and Fever , PAIN RELIEF , PAIN RELIEF Extra Strength, Panadol, PediaCare Children's Fever Reducer/Pain Reliever, PediaCare Children's Smooth Metls Fever Reducer/Pain Reliever, PediaCare Infant's Fever Reducer/Pain Reliever, Pediaphen, PHARBETOL, Plus PHARMA, Q-Pap, Q-Pap Extra Strength, Silapap, Triaminic Fever Reducer and Pain Reliever, Triaminic Infant Fever Reducer and Pain Reliever, Tylenol, Tylenol 8 Hour, Tylenol 8 Hour Arthritis Pain, Tylenol 8 Hour Muscle Aches & Pain, Tylenol Arthritis Pain, Tylenol Children's, Tylenol Children's Pain+Fever, Tylenol CrushableTablet, Tylenol Extra Strength, Tylenol Infants', Tylenol Infants Pain + Fever, Tylenol Junior Strength, Tylenol Pain + Fever, Tylenol Regular Strength, Tylenol Sore Throat, XS No Aspirin, XS Pain Reliever
Advil, Advil Children's, Advil Children's Fever, Advil Infants', Advil Junior Strength, Advil Migraine, Caldolor, Children's Ibuprofen, ElixSure IB, Genpril , Ibren , IBU, Midol, Midol Cramps and Body Aches, Motrin, Motrin Children's, Motrin IB, Motrin Infants', Motrin Junior Strength, Motrin Migraine Pain, PediaCare Children's Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer IB, PediaCare Infants' Pain Reliever/Fever Reducer IB, Samson-8
Anacin Adult Low Strength, Aspergum, Aspir-Low, Aspirtab , Aspir-Trin , Bayer Advanced Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin Extra Strength, Bayer Aspirin Plus, Bayer Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Children's Aspirin, Bayer Extra Strength, Bayer Extra Strength Plus, Bayer Genuine Aspirin, Bayer Low Dose Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Womens Aspirin , BeneHealth Aspirin, Bufferin, Bufferin Extra Strength, Bufferin Low Dose, DURLAZA, Easprin , Ecotrin, Ecotrin Low Strength, Genacote, Halfprin, MiniPrin, St. Joseph Adult Low Strength, St. Joseph Aspirin, VAZALORE, Zero Order Release Aspirin, ZORprin
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