When there is pressure or pain in your head, it can be difficult to tell whether you’re experiencing a typical headache or migraine.

Differentiating a migraine headache from a traditional headache, and vice versa, is important. It can mean faster relief through more targeted treatments based on the type of headache. It can also help prevent future headaches from occurring in the first place.

So how can you tell the difference between a common headache and a migraine?

Headaches are unpleasant pains in your head that can cause pressure and aching. They usually occur on both sides of your head, and the pain can range from mild to severe. Some specific areas where headaches can occur include the:

  • forehead
  • temples
  • back of the neck

A typical headache usually lasts between 30 minutes and a few hours. Some migraine episodes can last for days or even longer.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common headache type is a tension headache. Triggers for this headache type include:

Tension headaches aren’t the only type of headache.

Other headache types include:

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches — a subtype of a migraine — are severely painful headaches that occur on one side of the head and come in clusters. This means you experience cycles of headache attacks, followed by headache-free periods. They are most commonly experienced behind or above the eye or at the temple.

Cluster headaches affect up to 0.1 percent of the population. They typically occur between ages 20 and 49 years, and men are more likely than women to experience them.

By race and ethnicity, most of the large-scale epidemiological studies have been performed in white people, thus less is known across other ethnicities.

Sinus headaches

Often confused with migraine, sinus headaches co-occur with sinus infection symptoms like fever, stuffy nose, cough, congestion, and facial pressure. A 2018 survey found that sinus infections affect about 11.6% of adults.

By race and ethnicity, here’s a breakdown of adults who have been diagnosed with sinus infections:

  • white people: 12.2 percent
  • Black people: 11 percent
  • American Indian or Alaska Native people: 10.4 percent
  • Hispanic or Latino people: 8 percent
  • Asian people: 6.5 percent

Brain structure headaches

Injuries and medical conditions can also lead to headaches.

A Chiari headache is caused by a congenital Chiari malformation. This extremely rare condition causes the skull to push against parts of the brain, often causing pain in the back of the head.

Increased intracranial pressure is a life threatening medical problem that can also lead to heads. It can be caused by conditions such as:

Thunderclap headaches

A “thunderclap” headache is a very severe headache that develops in 60 seconds or less. It could be a symptom of a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical attention. It may also be caused by an aneurysm, stroke, or other injury.

It is a rare headache with incidence in the age group of 18 years and above is 38-43 cases per 100,000 yearly.

Call 911 immediately if you experience a headache of this kind.

Read more here to learn about headache symptoms that may be signs of serious medical problems.

Migraine attacks are intense or severe and often have other symptoms in addition to head pain. Symptoms associated with a migraine headache include:

When compared with tension or other headache types, migraine headache pain can be moderate to severe. Some people may experience headaches so severe they seek care at an emergency room.

Migraine episodes will typically affect only one side of the head. However, it’s possible to have a migraine headache that affects both sides of the head. Other differences include the pain’s quality: A migraine headache will cause intense pain that may be throbbing and will make performing daily tasks very difficult.

A 2018 study found that more than 15 percent of adults in the United States had experienced a migraine episode or a severe headache within the last 3 months.

By race and ethnicity, an analysis of nine studies looking at the average prevalence of severe headache or migraine from 2005 to 2012 in the United States found that the prevalence rates of episodes across all groups were similar:

  • Native American people: 17.7 percent
  • white people: 15.5 percent
  • Hispanic people: 14.5 percent
  • Black people: 14.45 percent
  • Asian people: 9.2 percent

Migraine episodes are typically divided into two categories: migraine with aura and migraine without aura. An “aura” refers to sensations a person experiences before they get a migraine headache. The sensations typically occur anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before a migraine attack. These can include:

  • feeling less mentally alert or having trouble thinking
  • seeing flashing lights or unusual lines
  • feeling tingling or numbness in the face or hands
  • having an unusual sense of smell, taste, or touch

Some people who have migraine may experience symptoms a day or two before the actual migraine episode occurs. Known as the “prodrome” phase, these subtler signs can include:

Migraine triggers

People who experience migraine report various factors that are associated with them. These are called migraine triggers and may include:

  • emotional anxiety
  • lack of sleep
  • skipping meals
  • contraceptives
  • alcohol
  • hormonal changes
  • perimenopausal hormone changes

Hormonal changes can trigger a menstrual migraine headache, which can occur a few days before a period, and during the first 1 to 2 days.

Over-the-counter treatments

Most tension headaches will go away with over-the-counter treatments. These include:

  • acetaminophen
  • aspirin
  • ibuprofen

Relaxation techniques

Because some headaches are stress-induced, taking steps to reduce stress can help relieve headache pain and reduce the risk for future headaches. These include:

  • heat therapy, such as applying warm compresses or taking a warm shower
  • massage
  • meditation
  • neck stretching
  • relaxation exercises

Prevention tips

Prevention is often the best treatment for migraine headaches. Examples of preventive methods your doctor may prescribe include:


People who have migraine less frequently may benefit from taking medications known to reduce migraine quickly. Examples of these medicines include:

  • anti-nausea medications, such as promethazine (Phenergan), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), or prochlorperazine (Compazine)
  • mild to moderate pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, naproxen sodium, or ibuprofen
  • triptans, such as almotriptan (Axert), rizatriptan (Maxalt), or sumatriptan (Alsuma, Imitrex, and Zecuity)

If a person takes migraine medications more than 10 days a month, this could cause an effect known as rebound headaches. This practice will worsen their headaches instead of helping them feel better.

Headaches can range from being a mild inconvenience to being severe and debilitating. Identifying and treating headaches as early as possible can help a person engage in preventive treatments to minimize the chance of another headache.

Distinguishing migraine from other types of headaches can be tricky. Pay particular attention to the time before the headache starts for signs of an aura and tell your doctor about any other symptoms.