What is the difference between a headache and a migraine?

We look at the difference between a headache and a migraine and how to cope when you experience either of them.


Headaches and migraines are a major cause of illness and disability, affecting up to 10 million South Africans and an estimated 20% of the global population. A world summit on migraines earlier this year noted that they are an under-diagnosed, under-treated and under-funded disorder experienced by a billion people worldwide.

Pharmacist, complimentary medicines expert and life coach, Giulia Criscuolo explains the difference between a headache and a migraine and how to best treat it.

A headache is prolonged pain, normally above the eyes or ears, or at the back of the head.

Migraines, on the other hand, are extremely painful severe headaches, experienced as an intense throbbing pain that can last up to 72 hours and are accompanied by blurred vision, thirst, cravings for sweets, sleepiness or depression. It is characterised by a pounding, throbbing pain that affect the entire head. The pain sometimes shifts from one side to another and migraine sufferers are also extremely sensitive to light, noise and strong odours.

Headache symptoms:

  • Affects both sides of the head.
  • Mild to moderate pain.
  • Pain that feels pressing or tightening, but not pulsating.
  • Not aggravated by routine physical activity.
  • May cause tenderness of the skull.


There are two types of migraines

  • Migraine with aura, also known as a common migraine. This type of migraine is categorised by the sufferer seeing stars, zigzag lines or experiencing a temporary blind spot 30 minutes before the headache starts.
  • Migraines without aura, also known as the classic migraines. Sufferers may experience craving for sweets, thirst, sleepiness or depression in the period before the headaches starts.

Migraine symptoms include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Pain behind one eye or ear
  • Intense pain in the temples
  • Seeing spots or flashing lights
  • Sensitivity to light and/or sound
  • Temporary vision loss
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Sleepiness
  • Neck pain.


auses/triggers of migraines

Researchers are unsure of the actual cause of a migraine, but science shows that it involves changes in the blood flow to the brain. Migraines cause blood vessels to narrow or constrict, reducing blood flow and leading to visual disturbances, difficulty speaking, weakness, numbness or a tingling sensation in one area of the body. Later, the blood vessels dilate or enlarge, leading to increased blood flow and a severe headache.

Studies also show that there seems to be a genetic link to migraine headaches. More than half of people with migraines have an affected family member.

Migraine triggers can include:

  • Skipping meals and eating certain foods like cheese, chocolate, nuts, peanut butter, some fruits (like avocado, banana, and citrus), foods with monosodium glutamate (MSG), onions, dairy products, meats containing nitrates (bacon, hot dogs, salami, and cured meats) fermented or pickled foods.
  • Fluctuations in hormones during pregnancy, menopause or PMS
  • Stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine or smoking
  • Odours such as perfume or smoke
  • Bright lights or loud noises
  • Stress, physical or emotional – a migraine will occur after a stressful period
  • Sleeping too little, or too much
  • Heat, high humidity and high altitude
  • Excessive use of headache medications can lead to more frequent and severe headaches.

How to cope with a migraine

  • Keep a migraine diary from the start of the migraine to help identify triggers so it can be avoided. Note the date and time the migraine started, foods eaten before, sleep patterns, activities, stress, how long it lasted and what helped to alleviate the pain.
  • Avoid stimulants such as cigarettes, caffeine, and alcohol.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get at least eight hours of sleep each night.
  • Limit exposure to bright light.
  • Reduce stress and do activities to encourage relaxation. Try joining a support group, practice relaxation techniques such as massage or meditation.
  • Try a transdermal magnesium spray such as BetterYou Magnesium Oil or use natural remedies such as Bach Rescue for daily stressful situations.
  • Follow a healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and eat regularly.
  • If migraine symptoms begin, rest in a quiet, dark room and drink fluids to avoid dehydration.

Treating a migraine or headache during pregnancy and when breastfeeding

The hormonal changes experienced during pregnancy make migraines a common experience. It’s important to visit a doctor so your triggers can be established and treated if necessary but these tips can help.

  • Apply a cold towel to your head or take a cold shower
  • Take a nap
  • Exercise regularly
  • Try relaxation techniques such as meditation or yoga
  • Eat and drink water frequently to prevent the migraine from becoming worse
  • Try a magnesium supplement. Magnesium is very important during pregnancy and is a natural relaxant.
  • Bach Rescue Remedy pastilles can also be used for daily stressful situations and are safe and recommended to use during pregnancy and breastfeeding to assist with the adjustment to having a new baby.
  • Homeopathic treatment can be useful and your homeopath will consider the pregnant or breastfeeding mom’s physical and emotional state and assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate remedy.
scroll to top
Send this to a friend