Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies




Migraines are a type of recurring severe headache that can cause you to have time off work and need to rest in bed. They are often accompanied by feeling sick, vomiting or an increased sensitivity to light.

Women are roughly three times more likely to get migraines than men. About four in every 20 women get migraines, while only about one in every 20 men do. You can get migraines for the first time at any age, but they commonly start during the teenage years.

There are a number of different types of migraine. The most common types are:

  • migraine with aura (classic migraine)
  • migraine without aura (common migraine)

Aura is a term used to describe the visual or sensory symptoms that some people get when their migraine is starting. The following are less common types of migraine.

  • Retinal migraines are headaches associated with visual changes in one eye only.
  • Abdominal migraines are associated with stomach pains, and happen more often in children.
  • Menstrual migraines can happen in women two days before their period starts or finishes.
  • Status migrainosus are migraines that can last for a few weeks.

Migraine is a medical condition that can have a big effect on your life and others caring for you. It can affect your daily life and can mean taking time off work or school.

Read more Close


  • Symptoms Symptoms of migraine

    Most people with a migraine get a moderate to severe headache, which can last for anything between four hours and three days. The headache can occur on one or both sides of your head and is a throbbing, pulsating or banging pain. Activity usually makes the pain worse, for example walking or climbing stairs. You may also feel sick or vomit during a migraine, and you may find you’re more sensitive to light and noise.

    You might get aura symptoms that affect your vision or other senses. For example, you may temporarily see flickering lights, spots or lines, or you may lose areas of your vision. You may also get pins and needles, or conversely, may get numbness. Some people also have disturbed speech.

    Some people have migraines once a year or less, whereas other people have them as often as several times a week.

    One of the things that make a migraine different from other types of headache is that it has clear stages. Most people will have the following stages, although not all have an aura stage.

    • Premonitory stage. You may feel tired, crave sweet foods, have mood changes, feel thirsty or have a stiff neck. These feelings can last up to 24 hours.
    • Aura stage. About one in three people have aura symptoms (visual or sensory changes). These may last from a few minutes up to an hour. 
    • Main attack stage. This is when you will have a headache and other symptoms such as nausea. This stage can last anywhere from four hours up to three days.
    • Resolution and recovery stage. This is when the migraine fades. This usually happens slowly, although a migraine can sometimes stop suddenly, if you vomit for example.

    Most people don’t need to see their GP when they get a migraine. However, you should see your GP if:

    • your migraines become more frequent or get worse over time
    • you’re over 50 and you have never had a migraine before
    • you have a child under the age of 10 that develops a migraine
    • you get migraines with aura and are taking the combined oral contraceptive pill
    • you get a headache when your posture changes
    • you have had cancer or have HIV and are getting new headaches

    You should get immediate medical advice if:

    • you have a sudden and very severe headache
    • you get aura symptoms that last for more than an hour or make it harder to move
  • Complications Complications of migraine

    Chronic migraine is when you get headaches on more than 15 days a month for at least three months. And on eight of these days you have a migraine. Chronic migraines can have a big effect on your life. If you have chronic migraine, you may feel the need to take increasing amounts of medicine to help control your symptoms. However, be careful, because over time this can lead to further headaches, called medication-overuse headaches. Your GP can provide advice on how to tackle this.
  • Causes Causes of migraine

    Things that cause a migraine to start are known as triggers. But,for many people a migraine starts without a clear trigger.

    Triggers might include:

    • stress, or relaxing after a stressful period
    • changes in sleep patterns (too much or too little sleep) or jetlag
    • changes to meal times or missed meals
    • certain foods or drinks – for example alcoholic drinks or some cheeses
    • loud noises or bright lights
    • strenuous exercise if you’re not used to it
    • periods (menstruation)

    You may find it useful to keep a diary to spot the triggers that cause your migraines or make them worse. Some things that can make you more likely to get a migraine are:

    Using medication for headaches too often can also lead to medication-overuse migraines. Women may also get migraines as a result of taking combined oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

  • Private GP appointments

    With our GP services, we aim to give you an appointment the next day, subject to availability. Find out more today.

  • Diagnosis Diagnosis of migraine

    There isn’t a specific test that can diagnose migraines. If you’re able to keep a diary of when you get migraines and possible triggers, this will help your GP to see if there’s a pattern to your symptoms. To help diagnose a migraine, your GP will ask you about your symptoms. For example, how often you experience them, how intense your headaches are, and when they occur. This is why it’s a good idea to keep a symptom diary. They will also examine you.

    Diagnosis of migraine with aura can be made more easily than migraine without aura. If you don’t have aura, you’ll need to have five or more migraines before your GP can confidently diagnose migraine without aura.

  • Treatment Treatment of migraine

    If you get migraines, there are no treatments that will stop your migraines for good. However, some treatments can help you to control your symptoms and minimise their effects. Some treatments can help to prevent a migraine, whereas others work to stop a migraine. You may need to try a few different ones before you find what works for you. It can help to keep a record of your symptoms and how any treatments affect your migraines.


    When you get a migraine, it’s best to rest in a quiet, darkened room. You may want to try using a cold compress, such as an ice pack, to ease your headache. A hot water bottle may also help, or a hot or cold shower. You can also try applying pressure to the pulse points on the side of your forehead or neck.


    Different types of medicine are used to treat migraines, depending on your symptoms and how severe your migraines get. Your GP may suggest you take an over-the-counter painkiller, such as ibuprofen, sometimes with an anti-sickness tablet. You’ll want the painkillers to work quickly once a migraine has started. For this reason, you may want to take soluble painkillers, which dissolve in water, or fast-acting tablets. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist for advice.

    If over-the-counter medicines don’t help your migraines, your doctor may suggest taking medicines called triptans. Triptans are anti-migraine medicines. It’s thought that they work in a number of ways, such as narrowing the blood vessels in your brain to relieve swelling. Unlike some medicines, triptans work best when taken after your migraine fully starts. Triptans are available as tablets, dissolvable wafers, nasal sprays or injections. Unfortunately, up to half of all people who take triptans find their migraine symptoms come back within two days. If you use any type of painkiller for your migraine too frequently, it may become less effective and cause further headaches. You may get medication-overuse headaches if you use painkillers for 15 or more days a month. If you’re worried that you may have this type of headache, speak to your GP.

  • Prevention Prevention of migraine

    If you know what triggers your migraines, do your best to avoid these triggers. For example, it may help to change your sleeping patterns. If stress triggers your migraines, you may find that a stress management technique helps. Likewise, if your migraines are linked to a neck problem, physiotherapy on your neck may help reduce your migraines.

    Some medicines such the beta-blocker propranolol, or the anticonvulsant topiramate may help to reduce the number of migraines you have.

    If these don’t work, then a course of acupuncture or another type of anticonvulsant may be recommended. Some people find that the vitamin Riboflavin may reduce migraine severity and frequency.

    Getting regular exercise may also prevent migraines. The recommended level of physical activity for adults is 150 minutes of moderate exercise over a week in bouts of 10 minutes or more. You can do this by getting 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week.

    There’s little proof that hypnotherapy or aromatherapy can ease the symptoms of migraine. If your migraines aren’t improving with treatment or there’s uncertainty about the diagnosis, your GP may refer you to a neurologist. This is a doctor who specialises in investigating, diagnosing and treating conditions of the nervous system.

  • FAQs FAQs

    Are the symptoms of migraine different in children?


    Migraine symptoms for children are often similar to those in adults. However, children’s migraines don’t tend to last as long, usually improving within two to four hours.


    About one in 10 school children get migraines. They can occur at any age. The symptoms of migraines for children are similar to those in adults; however, there are a few differences.

    Children’s migraines last for a shorter time than in adults. Usually no longer than four hours. The headache is more likely to develop over the whole head in children, whereas it might be one sided in adults. Children are also less likely to have aura before a migraine.

    Your child may feel sick or vomit. They may also have abdominal (tummy) pain rather than a headache. For some children, travel sickness is also a symptom of migraine.

    It’s a good idea to keep a diary of your child’s migraines. Note how long they last, if anything triggers them, and what relieves them. This will help your doctor to assess them. Speak with your doctor or go to Accident and Emergency immediately if your child:

    • has constant head pain
    • has a sudden, severe headache with no other migraine symptoms
    • has symptoms early in the morning
    • is vomiting a lot, has vision or balance problems, is weak or lacks coordination
    • has behaviour changes that accompany a headache

    I get migraines – am I at risk of having a stroke?


    If you’re a woman under 45 and you get migraines with aura, you may be more at risk of having a stroke. You’re particularly at risk if you smoke or if you take the combined oral contraceptive pill.


    A stroke happens when the blood supply to part of your brain is cut off, causing damage to the brain cells. There are two main types of stroke – ischaemic and haemorrhagic. An ischaemic stroke is when the blood supply to the brain is blocked by a blood clot or a fatty deposit. A haemorrhagic stroke is bleeding in the brain caused by a burst blood vessel.

    If you’re a woman under 45 and you get migraines with aura, you’re slightly more at risk than other women of having an ischaemic stroke. If you also smoke or take the combined oral contraceptive pill the risk is greater. However, the risk of having a stroke is still very small.

    If you’ve started getting migraines with aura and also take the combined oral contraceptive pill, you will need to stop taking it. If you wish to continue to use a contraceptive pill, the progesterone-only pill may be an option for you.

    If you get migraines and are worried about an increased risk of stroke, have a chat with your GP.

    What hormonal changes affect migraines in women?


    Women’s hormone levels can affect their migraines. You may notice that your migraines are triggered by the change in hormone levels just before your period. Or you may find that pregnancy, menopause or use of the combined oral contraceptive pill affect your migraines.


    About half of women who have migraines say that they are linked to their periods (menstrual cycle). Women who have migraines usually have their first one around the time of puberty.

    You may have migraines a couple of days before your period starts or finishes. Some women find that they only ever have migraines near the start of their period. If you become pregnant, your migraines may stop or get better during your pregnancy.

    You may find your migraines get worse, and happen more often, when you go through the menopause. For some women, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help, but for others it can make migraines worse. If your migraines are hormone related, your GP may prescribe medicines that can help ease them. Some women find that oral contraceptives make their migraines worse, but for other women oral contraceptives can improve migraines. If you think your migraines may be triggered by the oral contraceptive, speak to your GP. They may suggest you try a different pill or alter the schedule you use to take it. If you’re taking the combined oral contraceptive pill and get migraines with aura, you should stop taking it. Taking the combined oral contraceptive pill if you have migraines with aura can increase your risk of having a stroke. You may be able to use a progesterone-only pill instead.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Map of Medicine. Headache in adults. International View. London: Map of Medicine; 2013 (Issue 1)
    • Guidelines for all healthcare professionals in the diagnosis and management of migraine, tension-type headache, cluster headache, medication-overuse headache 3rd ed (1st revision). British Association for the Study of Headache, 2010.
    • Migraine, what is it? Migraine Trust., accessed 21 October 2014
    • Physical activity guidelines for adults (16 to 64 years), Department of Health, July 2011,
    • Headaches: diagnosis and management of headaches in young people and adults. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), September 2012.
  • Has our information helped you? Tell us what you think about this page

    We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question
  • Related information Related information

  • Author information Author information

    Reviewed by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Content Team, December 2014.

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.

  • Information Standard

    We are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
    Information standard logo
  • HONcode

    This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information.
    HON code logo

What our readers say about us

But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.

Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.

It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.

Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.

Our core principles

All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.

An image showing or editorial principals

                  Click to open full-size image

The ‘3Rs’ encompass everything we believe good health information should be. From tweets to in-depth reports, videos to quizzes, every piece of content we produce has these as its foundation.


In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.


We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.


We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.

Our accreditation

Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.

  • The Information Standard certification scheme

    You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.

    It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.

    Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.

  • Plain English Campaign

    Our website is approved by the Plain English Campaign and carries their Crystal Mark for clear information. In 2010, we won the award for best website.

    Website approved by Plain English Campaign.

  • British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards

    We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.

Contact us

If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: Or you can write to us:

Health Content Team
Bupa House
15-19 Bloomsbury Way

Find out more Close

Legal disclaimer

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the 'About our health information' section.

^ We may record or monitor our calls.