A migraine can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours. It can be difficult to predict how long an individual migraine will last, but charting its progress may help.
Migraines can usually be divided into four or five distinct stages. These include the:
- warning (premonitory) phase
- aura (not always present)
- headache, or main attack
- resolution period
- recovery (postdrome) stage
Some of these phases may only last a brief time, whereas others may last much longer. You may not experience each phase with every migraine you have. Keeping a migraine journal can help you track any patterns and prepare for what’s to come.
Keep reading to learn more about each stage, what you can do to find relief, and when to see your doctor.
Sometimes, migraines can begin with symptoms that have absolutely nothing to do with a headache.
These symptoms include:
- craving certain foods
- increased thirst
- stiff neck
- irritability or other mood changes
These symptoms can last anywhere from 1 to 24 hours before the aura or headache phases begin.
Aura includes a wide range of neurological symptoms. You may see:
- colored spots
- dark spots
- sparkles or “stars”
- flashing lights
- zigzag lines
You may feel:
- numbness or tingling
- anxiety or confusion
You may also experience disturbances in speech and hearing. In rare cases, fainting and partial paralysis are possible.
Aura symptoms can least anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour.
Although these symptoms usually precede a migraine headache in adults, it’s possible for them to occur at the same time. Children are more likely to experience an aura at the same time as their headache.
In some cases, aura symptoms may come and go without ever leading to a headache.
Most migraines aren’t accompanied by aura symptoms. Migraines without aura will move directly from the warning stage into the headache stage.
Headache symptoms are typically the same for migraines with and without aura. They may include:
- throbbing pain on one or both sides of your head
- sensitivity to light, noise, odors, and even touch
- blurred vision
- loss of appetite
- worsening pain with physical activity or other movement
For many people, the symptoms are so severe that they’re unable to work or continue with their usual daily activities.
This phase is the most unpredictable, with episodes lasting anywhere from a few hours to a few days.
Many migraine headaches gradually fade in intensity. Some people find that taking a 1- to 2-hour nap is enough to relieve their symptoms. Children may only need a few minutes rest to see results. This is known as the resolution phase.
As the headache begins to lift, you may experience the recovery phase. This can include a feeling of exhaustion or even of elation. You may also feel moody, dizzy, confused, or weak.
In many cases, your symptoms during the recovery phase will pair with symptoms you experienced during the warning phase. For example, if you lost your appetite during the warning phase you may now find that you’re ravenous.
These symptoms may last for a day or two after your headache.
There isn’t one right way to treat a migraine. If your migraines are infrequent, you may be able to use over-the-counter (OTC) medications to treat symptoms as they occur.
If your symptoms are chronic or severe, OTC treatments may not be helpful. Your doctor may be able to prescribe stronger medication to treat existing symptoms and help prevent future migraines.
Sometimes, changing your environment may be enough to relieve the bulk of your symptoms.
If you can, seek solace in a quiet room with minimal lighting. Use lamps instead of overhead lighting, and draw the blinds or curtains to block sunlight.
The light from your phone, computer, TV, and other electronic screens may exacerbate your symptoms, so limit your screen time if at all possible.
You should also take care to identify and avoid what’s triggering your symptoms. This may help reduce the symptoms you’re experiencing right now and prevent them from recurring.
Common triggers include:
- certain foods
- skipped meals
- drinks with alcohol or caffeine
- certain medications
- varied or unhealthy sleep patterns
- hormonal changes
- weather changes
- concussions and other head injuries
OTC pain relievers may help with symptoms that are mild or infrequent. Common options include aspirin (Bayer), ibuprofen (Advil), and naproxen (Aleve).
If your symptoms are more severe, you may want to try a medication that combines a pain reliever and caffeine, such as Excedrin. Caffeine has the potential to both trigger and treat migraines, so you shouldn’t try this unless you’re sure that caffeine isn’t a trigger for you.
If OTC options aren’t working, see your doctor. They may be able to prescribe stronger medications, such as triptans, ergots, and opioids, to help ease pain. They may also prescribe medication to help relieve nausea.
If your migraines are chronic, your doctor may also prescribe medication to help prevent future migraines. This may include:
- calcium channel blockers
If you’re experiencing a migraine for the first time, you may be able to relieve your symptoms with home remedies and OTC medications.
But if you’ve had multiple migraines, you may want to make an appointment with your doctor. They can assess your symptoms and develop a treatment plan tailored to your individual needs.
You should see your doctor right away if:
- your symptoms began after a head injury
- your symptoms last longer than 72 hours
- you’re 40 years old or older and are experiencing a migraine for the first time