Just like every person is different, every migraine is different. Severe migraine symptoms and side effects vary not only from person to person, but also from headache to headache.

Getting Relief

Before your severe migraine attack comes on in full force, you’ll likely have multiple warning signs or symptoms. Some common symptoms include:

  • pulsing pain around the eye, temples, face, sinuses, jaw, or neck
  • nausea or vomiting
  • sensitivity to light or sound
  • scalp tenderness or pressure
  • dizziness or unsteadiness
Read Video Transcript »

Break It Down: Migraine and Severe Migraine

Migraines are intense headaches that affect more than one in 10 people. Women are three times more likely to experience migraines than are men, and migraines have been shown to run in families.

These painful headaches can last up to 3 days if not treated, causing throbbing pain, sensitivity to light or sound, nausea and vomiting, and difficulty doing normal physical activities, such as standing or walking. Severe migraines can also cause symptoms like uncomfortable tingling or weakness in your arms and legs, or even vision changes such as seeing flashing lights or blurring. Vision changes, odd sensations of smell, or feeling unwell may precede a migraine in what is known as the aura. Auras typically begin slowly over five to 20 minutes and usually cease within 60 minutes.

While rare, other types of migraines can cause partial blindness, double vision, paralysis on one side of the body, vertigo, or symptoms that may mimic a stroke. Migraines can become so severe and disruptive that they require treatment in the emergency department. If you experience speech, vision, or balance problems you haven’t experienced before, you should be seen by a qualified medical professional. Persons over the age of 50 should seek medical attention if what appears to be a migraine starts suddenly, like a clap of thunder, because this presentation could be a sign of something more serious.

You should know that certain factors can trigger migraines. These include physical or emotional stress, bright lights and sounds, strong odors, changes in the weather, cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol, not getting enough sleep or food, and certain foods and food additives. Women experiencing hormone changes during menopause may also begin to experience migraines for the first time.

If you begin to experience a severe migraine, resting in a quiet, dark room might help. Several over-the-counter medicines, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may help relieve the symptoms and severity of migraines.

Your doctor may prescribe special medications to treat migraines. Triptans comprise the class of drugs most commonly prescribed for severe migraines. Other types of medications, including antidepressants, cardiovascular drugs, and anti-seizure medications, have been approved to help treat and prevent migraine headaches.

Avoiding known triggers is a logical way to avoid migraines. Other ways to help prevent them include getting adequate sleep, relaxing to relieve stress, and using acupuncture or massage therapy.

Keeping a diary of your headaches, noting events that lead up to them and their severity, and bringing it to your doctor’s appointment can offer clues about how best to treat your migraines.

Try one, or a few, of the following remedies when symptoms begin:

  • Take your migraine medication, if you have one, immediately.
  • Lay down in a quiet, dark room, if possible. Shield your eyes from direct light.
  • Reduce noise and remove strong smells, like scented candles or air fresheners.
  • Take a nap.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. If you’re experiencing nausea, try small sips of flat, clear soda.
  • Apply hot or cold compresses such as an ice pack, a hot water bottle, or a cool damp towel to the painful area. Hot or cold showers and soaking your hands and feet in hot or cold water can help too.
  • Rub or apply pressure to the spot where you feel pain.


Certain medicines taken at the onset of symptoms can help lessen migraine pain and side effects like nausea and vomiting. Migraine-specific drugs called triptans or ergotamines help to constrict blood vessels in and around the brain and lessen headache pain. These should be taken as soon as migraine symptoms start. These medications are available by a prescription from your doctor.

Over-the-counter analgesics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, or acetaminophen, may also help to lessen migraine pain.

Antiemetics or anti-nausea medications may be effective at reducing nausea or vomiting. Certain over-the-counter antihistamines, including dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizine hydrochloride (Dramamine Less Drowsy), may be used to treat nausea associated with vertigo or dizziness.

Early Warning Signs

Migraines are often preceded by early symptoms, called prodromal symptoms. These may occur anywhere from six to 24 hours before an attack. Knowing your early warning signs and taking immediate action may help stop a migraine attack or lessen its severity.

Early warning signs may include:

  • mood changes, including increased irritability or increased euphoria
  • increased thirst
  • fluid retention
  • restlessness
  • food cravings or loss of appetite
  • fatigue
  • sensitivity to light or sound
  • neck stiffness
  • lightheadedness

Call your doctor if your migraine is accompanied by a fever, or if you have speech, vision, or movement problems. Also seek medical attention if your migraine becomes extremely severe and your medications aren’t effective.

Prevent Future Migraines

Recording migraine episodes in a headache diary can provide you with important information about potential migraine triggers. It can also help you and your doctor figure out the best treatment plan for you.

Record in your diary the date and time of each episode, how severe the headache and side effects were, any preceding symptoms, any possible triggers, and therapies or treatments that helped to lessen your symptoms or end the attack.

No matter what your triggers are, exercising regularly, avoiding fatigue, and de-stressing may prevent future migraines.

These simple habits may also help:

  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Eat healthy foods.
  • Don’t skip meals.
  • Limit alcohol or caffeine intake.
  • Exercise daily.
  • Learn ways to cope with or reduce stress, including meditation or relaxation techniques.

Work with your doctor to formulate a migraine management plan. Keeping a list of treatment methods that have worked for you in the past may also help prevent future attacks.