Cluster headaches and migraine can both cause severe headaches. Cluster headaches tend to be shorter but can occur multiple times per day. A migraine episode can last days if left untreated.

Cluster headaches and migraine are two conditions that can cause severe headaches.

Migraine is estimated to affect 10% of people globally. Migraine headaches generally last anywhere from 4–72 hours and are often associated with other symptoms like light sensitivity, nausea, and vomiting.

Cluster headaches are characterized by severe episodes of head pain that can occur multiple times per day. They affect about 0.1% of people, and each episode typically lasts from 15 minutes to 3 hours.

Read on to learn more about the similarities and differences between these two conditions.

Here’s a look at how symptoms of cluster headache and migraine compare.

Cluster headache symptoms

Cluster headaches are characterized by sharp pain on one side of your head around your eye. They can occur up to eight times per day but most commonly occur twice, primarily at night.

Headaches may occur for weeks to months and then go away for months to years.

According to the National Health Service (NHS), cluster headaches:

  • often occur at the same time of year or same time of day
  • start and stop quickly without warning
  • may cause pain that makes you restless

Other symptoms can include:

  • red and watering eyes on the same side as the headache
  • a general feeling of sickness
  • drooping and swelling around your eyelid
  • smaller pupil on the painful side
  • face sweating
  • stuffy or runny nose

Migraine symptoms

A migraine headache is characterized by throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head that lasts between 4–72 hours.

Some migraine episodes are associated with auras that usually develop about an hour before the headache. Aura symptoms often include:

  • seeing flashing lights or lines
  • numbness or tingling
  • sudden dizziness
  • trouble speaking

Learn more about migraine symptoms.

Doctors don’t exactly know what causes cluster headaches or migraine, but they have identified risk factors and common triggers.

Cluster headache causes and triggers

Cluster headaches most often occur in men in their 30s or 40s. Potential triggers include:

  • high altitude
  • changes to your sleep
  • bright lights
  • dehydration
  • fasting or missing meals
  • certain times of day or year
  • smoking tobacco (if applicable)
  • consuming alcohol (if applicable)
  • strong smells, such as nail polish

Learn more about cluster headache triggers.

Migraine causes and triggers

Potential triggers of migraine include:

  • menstruation
  • anxiety or depression
  • stress or fatigue
  • not exercising enough
  • drinking a lot of caffeine
  • intense physical activity
  • skipping meals
  • sleep disruptions or jetlag
  • bright lights and sounds
  • weather changes

People with a family history are three times more likely to develop migraine than people without a family history.

The NHS recommends seeing a doctor if:

  • you think you may have cluster headaches
  • your headaches keep coming back
  • pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen don’t help your headaches
  • your headaches cause restlessness or agitation
  • you’ve previously received a diagnosis of cluster headaches, and they:
    • are getting worse
    • are lasting longer
    • stop responding to medications

The NHS recommends seeing a doctor for migraine if:

  • your migraine episodes are severe, getting worse, or lasting longer
  • you have migraine episodes more than once a week
  • you’re having trouble managing migraine symptoms

Doctors diagnose cluster headaches and migraine by evaluating your symptoms and medical history. They may also order other tests to rule out other conditions. These tests include:

Cluster headache treatment

Cluster headaches don’t respond to ibuprofen or acetaminophen (Tylenol). A doctor may prescribe:

Treatment options to lower symptoms once headaches start include:

  • triptans as an injection or nasal spray
  • oxygen through a mask
  • a device to give electrical pulses to the back of your neck

Migraine treatment

Some people find taking a small amount of caffeine in the early stages helps relieve migraine symptoms. Other ways to ease symptoms include:

  • drinking lots of fluids
  • using a cold compress on your forehead
  • napping or resting in a quiet, dark room

Medications that may help reduce symptoms include:

Lifestyle modifications that may help avoid migraine or cluster headaches include:

  • eating your meals on a regular schedule
  • keeping a regular sleep schedule
  • avoiding too much caffeine
  • avoiding too much sugar
  • doing regular cardiovascular exercises, ideally for at least 40 minutes, 3 days per week
  • minimizing stress
  • limiting alcohol, if you drink
  • avoiding tobacco, if you smoke (this can be difficult, but a doctor can help build a cessation plan that works for you)
  • avoiding illegal drugs

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about migraine and cluster headaches.

How can you tell the difference between a migraine and a cluster headache?

Migraine symptoms tend to last 4–72 hours, while cluster headaches tend to last for 15 minutes to 3 hours. Migraine pain can occur on one or both sides of your head. Cluster headaches only cause pain on one side.

Can you have both cluster headaches and migraine?

Research suggests that migraine might be slightly more common in people with cluster headaches than in the general population.

Is a cluster headache worse than a migraine episode?

A 2021 study looked at the severity of pain in people who experienced cluster headaches and migraine. Participants rated cluster headache pain at 9.7 out of 10 (with 10 being the most intense pain) and migraine episode pain at 5.4 out of 10.

A doctor can help you determine whether you’re having cluster headaches or migraine. They can diagnose your condition based on your symptoms and by ruling out other conditions.