The main symptom of a migraine is usually an intense headache on one side of the head.

The pain is usually a moderate or 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:

Not everyone with a migraine experiences these additional symptoms 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 unusual

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 can't be managed with occasional use of over-the-counter painkillers, such as paracetamol.

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.

You should call 999 for an ambulance immediately if you or someone you're 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.




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

Page last reviewed: 26/05/2016

Next review due: 01/01/2019