There are different types and causes of headaches, which can cause pain or pressure around the head. A migraine can also cause a headache, with symptoms such as severe pain that can last hours or days.

Understanding the type of headache a person is experiencing can help to ensure they receive the right treatment. Over-the-counter (OTC) medication can help a person manage some headaches. For severe or recurrent migraine headaches, a doctor may prescribe medication.

Read on to learn about the differences between migraine and headaches.

Headaches cause pain in the head, face, or upper neck, and can vary in frequency and intensity.

A migraine is an extremely painful primary headache disorder.

Migraine usually produces symptoms that are more intense and debilitating than headaches. Some types of migraine do not cause head pain, however.

Tension-type headachesband of intense pressure around the head•Chronic: 15 or more days per month
• Episodic: Fewer than 15 days per month
• stress
• jaw clenching
• hunger
• depression
• lack of sleep
• sleep apnea
• arthritis
• poor posture
Cluster headachessevere pain on one side of the head, including behind the eyedaily headaches lasting weeks or months before remission lasting months or years• smoking
• alcohol
• certain smells
• physical activity
Hemicraniapersistent headaches, usually on one side of the head, that fluctuate in severity• Chronic: 3–5 headaches every day
• Remitting: daily headaches for up to 6 months, then a pain-free period for weeks or months
• alcohol
• physical exertion
Migraineintense, throbbing headaches, usually on one side of the headup to several times a week, for a few hours or days• stress
• tiredness
• anxiety
• depression
• caffeine
• skipping meals
• not getting enough physical activity

There are many different types of headaches, which experts have classified into two main groups — primary and secondary.

Primary headaches refer to independent conditions that cause pain in the head, face, or neck. Examples of primary headaches include migraine and tension headaches. Secondary headaches occur as the result of another medical condition.

Tension-type headache

Tension-type headaches are the most common type of primary headache disorder. Around 1–3% of adults experience chronic tension-type headaches, which means that they occur on more than 15 days per month.

Episodic tension-type headaches happen fewer than 15 days per month. Chronic tension-type headaches occur 15 or more days per month.

Tension-type headaches feel like a band of intense pressure around the head.

Several factors can cause tension-type headaches. These can include:

  • clenching the jaw
  • hunger
  • depression or anxiety
  • lack of sleep
  • sleep apnea
  • arthritis
  • bending or straining the neck
  • poor posture
  • stress

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause severe pain on one side of the head, often behind the eye. These headaches come in clusters, meaning multiple headaches occur around the same time every day for several weeks.

Cluster headaches occur in cycles of recurring headaches followed by periods without headaches.

Cluster headaches usually last anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours at a time, with a person experiencing 2–8 cluster headaches per day. The headaches can persist for a number of weeks or months, before a person experiences remission for a number of months or years.

Cluster headaches affect around 0.1% of the general population. They are around three times more likely to occur in people assigned male at birth than people assigned female at birth. The average age of onset is 30 years, though they can occur at any age.

Symptoms of cluster headaches include:

  • severe pain on one side of the head
  • pain behind the eye
  • red, watery eyes
  • sweating
  • congestion
  • restlessness or agitation
  • changes in heart rate

Possible triggers include:

  • alcohol
  • smoking
  • physical activity or exercise
  • certain smell, including:
    • perfume
    • nail polish
    • paint

Hemicrania continua

Hemicrania continua are persistent headaches that fluctuate in severity. These headaches usually affect the same side of the head, though bilateral pain can also occur.

People can have chronic hemicrania headaches, with daily headaches occurring 3–5 times in a 24-hour cycle. Remitting hemicrania headaches can occur daily for about 6 months, then a person may not experience them for a number of weeks or months.

Other symptoms of hemicrania headaches include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • watery eyes
  • redness or irritation of the eyes
  • sweating
  • congestion
  • swollen eyelids

Possible triggers include physical exertion and alcohol. It is more common in females than males.

Secondary headache disorders

Illnesses and chronic medical conditions that affect the nervous system can cause secondary headaches.

Causes of secondary headaches include:

  • sleep disorders
  • brain tumors
  • strokes
  • withdrawal from medications or drugs
  • head trauma
  • inflammation
  • seizures
  • leaking spinal fluid
  • physical deformations of the head, neck, or spine

Migraine is a type of primary headache disorder that can cause severe pain and other symptoms. People with migraine may experience recurring symptoms that doctors call episodes or attacks.

Headaches are only one symptom of migraine, and they can range in severity. Migraine can cause intense, throbbing headaches. A migraine headache usually affects one side of the head, but some people experience pain on both sides.

Symptoms can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. Some people will experience several migraine headaches a week.

Migraine phases

A migraine episode can occur in four distinct phases, though not everyone experiences every phase.

Premonitory phase

Doctors also call the premonitory phase the preheadache or prodrome phase. It includes nonpainful symptoms that occur hours or days before the headache arrives.

Premonitory phase symptoms can include:

  • unexplainable mood changes
  • food cravings
  • stiffness of the neck
  • frequent yawning
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • sensitivity to light, sound, or smells

Aura phase

Auras refer to sensory disturbances that occur before or during a migraine attack. Auras can affect a person’s vision, touch, or speech.

Visual auras can cause the following symptoms in one or both eyes:

  • flashing lights
  • zigzagging lines
  • blurred vision
  • blind spots that expand over time

Sensory auras cause numbness or tingling that starts in the arm and radiates to the face.

Motor auras affect a person’s ability to communicate and think clearly. Motor auras include:

  • slurred or jumbled speech
  • difficulty understanding what others say
  • difficulty writing words or sentences
  • having trouble thinking clearly

Headache phase

Migraine headaches can range from mild to severe. People who have a severe migraine headache may need to seek emergency medical treatment.

Physical activity and exposure to light, sound, and smells worsen the pain. It can also cause nausea and vomiting. People can have migraine episodes without developing a headache, however.

Postdrome phase

The postdrome phase occurs after the headache subsides. People may feel exhausted, confused, or generally unwell during the postdrome phase.

This phase can last anywhere from a few hours or several days.

Types of migraine

Migraine falls into several different categories depending on the symptoms.

Migraine without aura

Migraine without aura causes intense, throbbing headaches on one side of the head.

These headaches usually last 4–72 hours. Migraine without aura does not produce symptoms before the onset of the migraine attack, but people with this type of migraine may have the premonitory symptoms described above.

Migraine with aura

Around 25% of people with migraine experience aura. Symptoms of aura typically begin around 10–60 minutes before the headache.

People who have migraine episodes with auras might not experience an aura every time. Headaches may or may not accompany auras.

Abdominal migraine

According to the authors of a 2018 article, abdominal migraine usually affects children between the ages of 3 and 10 years old.

Abdominal migraine causes abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. People who have this type of migraine can develop a mild headache or no headache at all.

Hemiplegic migraine

This rare type of migraine causes temporary paralysis before or during the headache.

Other symptoms of hemiplegic migraine include:

  • vertigo (dizziness)
  • a piercing or stabbing sensation in the head
  • vision problems
  • difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • trouble moving one side of the body

Risk factors for migraine

Researchers and doctors have identified several factors associated with higher risks of migraine. These include:

  • being female
  • having a family history of migraine
  • mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders
  • sleep disorders

Migraine triggers

Possible triggers for migraine include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • stress
  • skipping meals
  • caffeine
  • tiredness
  • not getting enough physical activity or exercise

A doctor can diagnose headache disorders, including migraine, based on an individual’s symptoms, as well as their personal and family medical history.

They may refer a person to a neurologist, who specializes in nervous system disorders.

Medication and lifestyle changes may help a person to treat symptoms of migraine or headache and help prevent future episodes.

Over-the-counter medications

People can treat tension headaches and mild migraine with OTC medications. These include:

  • Pain relief medication: These can include acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs), such as aspirin and ibuprofen.
  • Antinausea medication: Certain OTC antinausea or antiemetic medications can help a person manage nausea, which can be a symptom of migraine. Examples include antihistamines and bismuth subsalicylate.
  • Melatonin: A 2017 review cited findings from a number of randomized placebo-controlled trials that suggest melatonin may effectively prevent migraine and cluster headaches. The best dose may vary according to the condition, so a person should speak to a doctor about using this treatment.

Prescription medications

Moderate to severe migraine symptoms may not respond to OTC treatments. In this case, people may require prescription medications, including:

  • prescription antinausea medicines, such as beta-blockers
  • triptans, such as almotriptan (Axert) or sumatriptan/naproxen (Treximet)
  • ergot alkaloids, such as ergotamine (Ergomar)
  • calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors

People can also use prescription medication to prevent future migraine episodes. Examples of these medications include:

People who treat their headaches with an OTC or prescription medication should remember to follow the dose a doctor or manufacturer recommends. Overusing medication can cause some people to develop a condition known as a medication-overuse headache.

Medication-overuse headaches occur when a person takes too much medication to treat a primary headache. As a result, they develop either a new type of headache or experience worse symptoms of their preexisting headache.

Nonmedication prevention

Some lifestyle factors may also help prevent migraine episodes and some types of headache. These include:

  • getting enough regular physical activity or exercise
  • making dietary changes that eliminate trigger foods
  • using relaxation techniques, such as mindful breathing and meditation
  • learning stress-management techniques
  • keeping a migraine or headache journal to track patterns and uncover potential triggers

People may wish to consider contacting a medical professional if they experience frequent headaches, particularly if they interfere with their ability to function or with their quality of life.

People should also seek medical care if their headaches cause any of the following symptoms:

  • extreme pain
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • vision problems
  • tingling or numbness in the limbs, face, neck, or head
  • difficulty speaking or understanding what other people say
  • difficulty thinking
  • difficulty moving one side of the body
  • seizure

A person should also contact a doctor if they experience changes in preexisting headaches or migraine episodes.

Here are some frequently asked quetions about headaches and migraine.

How do I know if my headache is a migraine?

Migraine headaches are typically intense and throbbing. They may also occur on one side of the head only. Depending on the type of migraine, a person may experience symptoms hours or days before the headache.

Can a headache turn into migraine?

Some triggers of headaches, such as stress, can also be a trigger for migraine headaches. If a person experiences headaches that begin to worsen or occur with other symptoms, it is best to contact a doctor for a diagnosis.

Can you sleep off a migraine?

Some people may find that sleeping helps to treat a migraine. Getting enough regular quality sleep can also help to reduce the frequency of headaches.

What type of doctor treats migraine?

A neurologist is a medical professional who treats migraine.

Most people will experience a headache at some point in their lives. Not all headaches are the same, as they range in severity, frequency, and cause.

Headache disorders can significantly impact a person’s ability to function and reduce their overall quality of life. This is why accurate diagnoses are so important.

Correctly differentiating between headaches and types of migraine headache can lead to faster, more effective treatment. It is best to contact a doctor for advice if a person experiences frequent or severe headaches or migraine episodes.