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13th Jun 2019

Headache or migraine? Here’s how to know the difference between the two

Anna Daly


Brought to you by Novartis.

Don’t talk down your pain.

We have all experienced headaches. They’re not fun. You can get them after a night out, if you haven’t drunk enough water on a hot day, if you’ve spent too long looking at a screen, the list goes on. Not a pleasant experience.

However, a headache disappears after a while and generally, they’re bearable. Most of us can work through a headache, take a painkiller and continue with our day. Migraines, on the other hand, are a different story.

According to the Migraine Association of Ireland’s website, “migraine is a complex neurological condition which is classified by the World Health Organisation as the 7th most disabling disease worldwide, the 4th for women.”1,2 People of all ages and genders can be affected by the most susceptible group are women aged 15-49.

Many of the sufferers from this group report attacks around ovulation and the menstruation. So if you are a constant sufferer of debilitating “period headaches”, they may actually be migraines.

But how can you tell which you’re suffering from? Well, the International Headache Society (yes, there is one) explains that there are several recognisable differences between the two. So, for the next time you get that pain in your head, here are the most common differences between headaches and migraines.

The difference between migraines and headaches3

A migraine usually lasts for at least four hours and tends to be one-sided. The pain can also have a pulsing sensation.

A headache, on the other hand, mostly disappears after about two hours, or headaches associated with an infectious illness go away when the illness is over. Headache pain can usually be felt on both sides of your head.

A migraine is often accompanied by various other symptoms such as nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and often gets worse with exercise, even something as simple as climbing the stairs.

A migraine can cause some neurological symptoms, such as short-term vision problems with dark spots or patches appearing in your line of sight. Or sometimes you might even experience difficulty finding your words.

A headache, unless brought on by an illness or a hangover, usually appears without any other features or side effects and does not worsen with exercise. In fact, many people find exercise can lessen the pain of a headache.

Migraines are under-diagnosed and under-treated, so if you’re experiencing a “headache” that fits these descriptions, it’s important to go and get a proper diagnosis. If you would like more information on migraines, check out the Speak Your Migraine website.

How to help manage migraines

Keeping a migraine diary that records the specific details of each migraine is the first step towards getting the correct diagnosis and the appropriate treatment. The diary can help to identify what might be causing them – the triggers – so you can take steps to prevent them before they happen.

Factors such as diet, exercise, stress, alcohol consumption, and smoking, can all affect and trigger migraines so general medical management could include some lifestyle advice as well as acute or preventative treatments, depending on the severity of your migraines.

For a bit of help, you can download the free app Migraine Buddy, where you can set up your own migraine diary, or you could contract the Migraine Association of Ireland for a copy of their diary. There are also plenty of tools to help you along the way on the Speak Your Migraine website.

Migraines are the worst but life will be so much better once you get them under control. Don’t let them run your life.

Brought to you by Novartis.


1. Migraine Association of Ireland website last accessed 07/06/19
2. Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. Vos et al. The Lancet, Volume 386, Issue 9995, 743–800, 22 August 2015
3. The Irish College of General Practitioners. Migraine: Diagnosis and Management From A GP Perspective: Quick Reference Guide. Pages 2-28. 2019. [online] Available at:
4. Heid, M. (2018). Here’s How You Can Tell If You Have a Migraine. [online] Women’s Health. Available at: