A migraine is usually a moderate or severe headache felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head.
Many people also have symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and increased sensitivity to light or sound.
Migraine is a common health condition, affecting around one in every five women and around one in every 15 men. They usually begin in early adulthood.
There are several types of migraine, including:
migraine with aura – where there are specific warning signs just before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights
migraine without aura – the most common type, where the migraine occurs without the specific warning signs
migraine aura without headache, also known as silent migraine – where an aura or other migraine symptoms are experienced, but a headache doesn’t develop.
Some people have migraines frequently, up to several times a week. Other people only have a migraine occasionally. It’s possible for years to pass between migraine attacks.
When to seek medical advice
You should see your GP if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms.
Simple painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can be effective for migraine. However, be careful not to take too many painkillers as this could make it harder to treat headaches over time.
You should also make an appointment to see your GP if you have frequent migraines (on more than five days a month), even if they can be controlled with medication, as you may benefit from preventative treatment.
Causes of migraines
The exact cause of migraines is unknown, although they’re thought to be the result of temporary changes in the chemicals, nerves and blood vessels in the brain.
Around half of all people who experience migraines also have a close relative with the condition, suggesting that genes may play a role.
Some people find migraine attacks are associated with certain triggers, which can include:
poor quality sleep
neck or shoulder tension
low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia)
strenuous exercise, if you’re not used to it
starting their period
missed, delayed or irregular meals
the food additive tyramine
caffeine products, such as tea and coffee
specific foods such as chocolate, citrus fruit and cheese
flickering screens, such as a television or computer screen
smoking (or smoky rooms)
changes in climate, such as changes in humidity or very cold temperatures
a stuffy atmosphere
There’s no cure for migraines, but a number of treatments are available to help reduce the symptoms.
painkillers – including over-the-counter medicationssuch as paracetamol and ibuprofen
triptans – medications that can help reverse the changes in the brain that may cause migraines
anti-emetics – medications often used to reduce nausea and vomiting
During an attack, many people find that sleeping or lying in a darkened room can also help.
If you suspect a specific trigger is causing your migraines, such as stress or a certain type of food, avoiding this trigger may help reduce your risk of experiencing migraines.
It may also help to maintain a generally healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, sleep and meals, as well as ensuring you stay well hydrated and limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol.
If your migraines are severe or you’ve tried avoiding possible triggers and are still experiencing symptoms, your GP may prescribe medication to help prevent further attacks.
Migraines can severely affect your quality of life and stop you carrying out your normal daily activities. Some people find they need to stay in bed for days at a time.
However, a number of effective treatments are available to reduce the symptoms and prevent further attacks.
Migraine attacks can sometimes get worse over time, but they tend to gradually improve over many years for most people.