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Migraines & headaches health centre

What are the symptoms of migraines?

BMJ Group Medical Reference

You have migraine if you get a headache that lasts from four to 72 hours and you also have two of the symptoms listed below. [1]

  • The pain is on one side of your head (this is called unilateral pain). This pain is often at the front of your head.

  • The pain is a throbbing pain.

  • The pain gets worse when you move.

  • The pain is moderate or severe.

If you have a migraine attack you will also have one or more of the symptoms in this list: [1]

  • You may feel nauseated (as if your stomach is upset or you are going to vomit) or you may vomit

  • You may feel extra-sensitive to light (this is called photophobia)

  • You may be extra-sensitive to sounds (this is called phonophobia).

Migraine attacks often start when you wake up in the morning. If they start during the day, these attacks tend to take several hours to build up to their worst. [8]

Different types of migraine: with or without auras

Some people who get migraine attacks also get what is called an aura before an attack. The aura happens because some of your nerves don't work in the way that they usually do. The aura is a warning of an attack, and it can be frightening. About 1 in every 6 people who have migraines (15 percent) get auras. [1] If you get an aura you may suddenly:

  • See flashing lights or have blind spots (areas that you can't see)

  • Have ringing in your ears

  • Develop numbness in parts of your body, such as your hand, or have pins and needles [1]

  • Have trouble speaking. For example, you may not be able to find the right words.

All of these symptoms are what make migraines different from other headaches, including tension-type headaches (the most common type of headache). But every person is different, and your migraine symptoms may not be the same as other people's.

For more about what causes migraine symptoms, see What are migraines?

When should I see a doctor straight away?

If you have any of the symptoms in this list, see your doctor urgently.

  • You have a very painful headache for the first time that came on suddenly (within one or two minutes), especially if you feel it is the worst headache of your life. If you have a headache that feels like someone has kicked you in the back of your head, it may be a sign that a blood vessel in your brain has leaked. If this has happened you need urgent treatment. Dial 999 or visit the Accident and Emergency (A&E) department of your local hospital.

  • Your symptoms suddenly change. For example, you've had migraine attacks for a while, but there is a change in how often you have them and the headaches get stronger. Or perhaps your arm feels numb for the first time. Some people who have migraines with auras start getting attacks without auras. None of these things necessarily mean anything is seriously wrong. But your doctor will want to find out about any changes to the usual pattern of your symptoms.

  • You have your first severe headache and you are over the age of 50. It is not that common to start having migraine attacks at this age, so your doctor will want to be certain that nothing else is causing your symptoms.

  • You have a severe headache with fever, sickness, and possibly a rash. These symptoms could mean you have a serious illness called meningitis and you should get treatment straight away.

Last Updated: September 26, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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