The difference between migraines and headaches

It is difficult to tell whether you are experiencing a headache or a migraine as the main similarity between them is that they both cause pain.

Updated: Thursday 15 April 2021

comparing migraines and headaches

It is difficult to tell whether you are experiencing a headache or a migraine as the main similarity between them is that they both cause pain. However, it is important to be able to differentiate between them so you can get quicker relief and targeted treatments.


Most of us have experienced a type of headache at some point. They vary in the cause, duration and severity and classified into two main groups – primary and secondary.

Primary headache

Primary headaches are headaches which are not a result of another medical condition. The headache is the condition. The most common primary headaches are:

Tension headache – These are the most common headache and is usually mild to moderate pain that is usually described as a tight band around the head. The pain is usually felt across the forehead or on the sides and back of the head.

Cluster headache – Occurs in cycles of recurring headaches followed by cycles of headache-free periods.

Secondary headaches

Secondary headaches are usually caused by another medical condition. The headache is usually the symptom. Causes of secondary headaches include high blood pressure, sinus infections, concussions or blood vessel problems.

Rebound headache – This occurs when you regularly overuse pain medications to treat a headache. Although pain medications provide relief from headaches, taking them too often can trigger a medication overuse headache.

Thunderclap headache – This is sometimes referred to as the worst headache of your life. This is because the pain is intense and sudden and peaks within a minute. Experiencing a thunderclap headache may be a sign of a life-threatening condition and it is important to seek medical help if you experience this form of headache.

Other headache types

There are other conditions which are associated with headaches, these include:

  • Medication headaches
  • Ice cream headaches (also known as brain freeze)
  • Headaches coming from high blood pressure
  • Exercise headaches

Headache symptoms

The symptoms of a headache will vary, along with the headache intensity but typically symptoms include:

  • Pain on both sides of the head.
  • Pain is usually mild to moderate (not severe).
  • The back of the head or neck may also be in pain.
  • Pain feels like a band across the head.

Treating headaches

Headaches will normally last between 30 minutes and a few hours. To reduce the pain of headaches, drink plenty of water, get plenty of rest especially if you are ill, relax and take paracetamol or ibuprofen.


Migraines are a more severe form of a headache where a moderate to severe pain is felt only on one side of the head. There are two types of migraines:

Migraines with an aura – These are neurological disturbances which can develop before or during the onset of a migraine. Typical auras will include coloured spots, flashing lights, tunnel vision and dizziness. These migraines will usually last around 30 minutes with no long-lasting effects.

Migraines without an aura – There will be no warning sign when this form of migraine occurs and around 70% of people will experience this type. The effects can last between 4-72 hours if left untreated with a throbbing or pulsating pain. You may vomit, diarrhoea and experience an increased sensitivity to light and sound.

The exact cause of why migraines occur is unknown but it is thought to be brought about by changes in the temporary changes in the chemicals, nerves and blood vessels in the brain.

Migraine Triggers

  • Caffeine
  • Stress
  • Hormonal changes, usually in women
  • Routine changes
  • Environment
  • Mild dehydration

Treating migraines

Over the counter painkillers - Paracetamol or ibuprofen can be used to help reduce migraine symptoms and is most effective when you first experience the pain.

Triptans - If over the counter medications are ineffective, there are a variety of triptan medications which can reduce the severity and duration of a migraine. Triptans work by narrowing the blood vessels around the brain to reduce the pain of the migraine. At Pharmica, we offer a range of migraine relief medication which comes in a variety of forms such as tablets or nasal sprays.

Iris Barbier

Written by: Iris Barbier

Pharmacy Assistant

Born in France, Iris moved to the UK to study Biological Sciences at London Metropolitan University. Upon graduating, Iris moved up north, where she completed an MA in Science Journalism at the University of Lincoln.

As a qualified science journalist, Iris uses her expertise to write content for Pharmica’s online Health Centre. She ensures our patients get specialist knowledge on medical conditions and how to treat them.

Find out more about how we ensure the accuracy of our content with our content guidelines.

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