Migraine - Symptoms 

Symptoms of a migraine 


Migraines affect 8.5 million people in the UK. Identifying and avoiding the things that trigger migraines is an important part of managing them, says Dr Dawn Harper.

Media last reviewed: 02/10/2013

Next review due: 02/10/2015

Stages of a migraine

Migraines often develop in distinct stages, although not everyone goes through all of these:

1. 'Prodromal' (pre-headache) stage – changes in mood, energy levels, behaviour and appetite that can occur several hours or days before an attack

2. Aura – usually visual problems, such as flashes of light or blind spots, which can last for five minutes to an hour

3. Headache stage – usually a pulsating or throbbing pain on one side of the head, often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and/or extreme sensitivity to bright light and loud sounds, which can last for four to 72 hours

4. Resolution stage – when the headache and other symptoms gradually fade away, although you may feel tired for a few days afterwards

The main symptom of a migraine is usually an intense headache that occurs at the front or on one side of the head.

The pain is usually a severe throbbing sensation that gets worse when you move and prevents you from carrying out normal activities.

In some cases, the pain can occur on both sides of your head and may affect your face or neck.

Additional symptoms

Other symptoms commonly associated with a migraine include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • increased sensitivity to light and sound, which is why many people with a migraine want to rest in a quiet, dark room

Some people also occasionally experience other symptoms including sweating, poor concentration, feeling very hot or very cold, abdominal (tummy) pain and diarrhoea.

Not everyone experiences these additional symptoms when they have a migraine and some people may experience them without having a headache.

The symptoms of a migraine usually last between four hours and three days, although you may feel very tired for up to a week afterwards.

Symptoms of aura

About one in three people with migraines have temporary warning symptoms, known as aura, before a migraine. These include:

  • visual problems, such as seeing flashing lights, zig-zag patterns or blind spots
  • numbness or a tingling sensation like pins and needles, which usually starts in one hand and moves up your arm before affecting your face, lips and tongue
  • feeling dizzy or off balance
  • difficulty speaking
  • loss of consciousness, although this is rare

Aura symptoms typically develop over the course of about five minutes and last for up to an hour. Some people may experience aura followed by only a mild headache or no headache at all.

When to seek medical advice

You should see your GP if you have frequent or severe migraine symptoms that cannot be managed with over the counter painkillers, such as paracetamol.

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.

You should call 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone you are with experiences:

  • paralysis or weakness in one or both arms and/or one side of the face
  • slurred or garbled speech
  • a sudden agonising headache resulting in a blinding pain unlike anything experienced before
  • headache along with a high temperature (fever), stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision, and a rash

These symptoms may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as a stroke or meningitis, and should be assessed by a doctor as soon as possible.

Read more about diagnosing migraines.

Page last reviewed: 14/04/2014

Next review due: 14/04/2016


How helpful is this page?

Average rating

Based on 716 ratings

All ratings

Add your rating


The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

User389826 said on 02 April 2014

Ive literally just been to see a neurologist, who diagnosed my falls, severe fatigue, dizzyness, numbness in hands and feet and burning sensation in my scalp as an sensitivity to caffiene. Ive been a moderate tea drinker for 40 years, all of a sudden Im intollerant of this?

He took 3 minutes to do this, did a plantar reflex test using the wrong tool and whilst I was wearing socks.

The NHS is in such a hurry they rush through appointments just to meet targets.

If I had the money I would go private, where they would give me the decent respect and see me for long enough to properly investigate what may be symptoms of something serious.

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Kpunto said on 21 February 2014

I used get a metallic taste in my mouth sometimes just before an aura and then it continues for a while.
I now experience a very strong reaction from what I assume is my saliva glands. If I taste any food or drink I get a strong pressure sensation at the back of my mouth either side of my jaw, which I would describe it as painful, thankfully this only lasts for an hour or two!

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable

Carlespie said on 16 August 2013

I experience a metallic taste in my mouth at the same time as the aura and during the headache. Does anyone else?

Report this content as offensive or unsuitable