Headaches and Migraines – What’s the Difference?

Woman with headache symptoms
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Almost everyone gets headaches from time to time. Your head throbs and your eyes hurt. But is it a headache or a migraine?

There are important differences between migraines and headaches. Knowing the difference can help you find the best treatments to fight the pain and lower the risk of it returning.  

Let’s examine four of the most common types of headaches, how to tell the difference, and when to see a doctor.

What is a migraine?

Migraines are a type of headache that cause intense throbbing or pulsing pain on one or both sides of the head. But not all headaches are migraines. Migraines cause a wide range of symptoms that usually don’t occur with other headaches.

If you have a migraine, you may experience:

  • An aura, or light haze, in the minutes before migraine pain appears
  • Pain on one side of your head
  • Blurry vision
  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to light, touch, sound, or smell

When to see a doctor – For one-time or occasional migraines, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain relief medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

If you have ongoing migraines, your doctor will evaluate you to determine the cause of your migraines. Prescription medicines are available to help prevent migraines.

Tension Headache or Migraine?

Tension headaches are more common than migraines and are triggered by emotional, mental, or physical stress. People often complain of a band of pain or pressure across their forehead or on either side of the head. Tension headaches can also cause soreness around your neck or shoulder muscles. Most tension headaches can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

Migraines usually hurt worse on one side of the head and are often accompanied by light sensitivity, aura, or bright dots in your field of vision.

When to see a doctor – Schedule a visit if your tension headaches are chronic, severe, or long-lasting.

Sinus Headache or Migraine?

A common sinus headache symptom is pain with a runny or stuffy nose, but migraines can also cause these symptoms. The difference is the color of the mucus. Sinus headaches may indicate an infection that causes the mucus to be thick and yellowish, while clear and runny mucus usually indicates a migraine.

When to see a doctor – Consult a doctor if you think you have a sinus infection that’s not resolving with OTC medicines. Sinus headaches usually respond to decongestants and antihistamines, but you may need an antibiotic if a bacterial infection is the cause.

Read More: First Aid Handbook: Sinus Infections

Cluster Headache or Migraine?

According to the American Migraine Foundation, cluster headaches are a rare headache disorder that consists of piercing pain or severe burning around or behind one eye or side of the face. Cluster headaches can also result in sweating, feeling flushed, facial swelling, nasal congestion, teary eyes, and drooping eyelids.

Like migraines, cluster headaches affect one side of the head and are extremely painful. But unlike migraines, cluster headaches come on suddenly with a piercing pain that feels like someone stabbed you in the eye or temple.

Migraine pain typically starts with other symptoms – a light aura or a flashing light in your field of vision. Cluster headaches can resolve within a few hours, but migraines can last for days.

When to see a doctor – If you think you’re experiencing cluster headaches, talk with a doctor about fast-acting treatments. Cluster headaches can be treated with acute and preventive treatments like oxygen therapy, oral steroids, and steroid injections.

Seek immediate care for your headache if you experience:

  • Loss of vision or consciousness
  • A sudden, intense headache
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Pain for over 72 hours with little or no relief

Integrity Urgent Care Can Help

Talk to a healthcare professional if your headaches disrupt your daily life or you experience them frequently. To help your doctor diagnose the source of your headaches, keep track of how often they occur, how they make you feel, possible triggers, etc. The information you provide about your headaches is essential to the diagnosis process.  

Integrity Urgent Care, part of the Xpress Wellness family, is a Texas-based walk-in clinic with over 15 convenient locations. Our team is dedicated to providing the highest-quality, affordable care for non-life-threatening injuries and illnesses. Find a location near you and check-in online or walk-in today.

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