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What Is Aura?

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 15, 2019

Sometimes you see flashing lights or hear ringing in your ears. Or you could get a weird feeling in your stomach. In some cases, you may not be able to talk the right way. The term for all this is aura. It’s a set of symptoms that can affect all of your senses.

Aura isn’t life-threatening. But it’s a good idea to check with your doctor anytime you get new symptoms. They’ll want to rule out a serious condition. Here’s what to look out for.

Symptoms of Aura

This condition can be strange, especially the first time it happens. But these symptoms usually go away after a few minutes to an hour. If they happen a lot, you’ll need to come up with a plan to stay safe. You may need to lie down or not drive until it stops.

Signs of aura include:

Visual. Light may sparkle across your eyes. It may seem like a bulb is flickering. You may notice jagged lines that look like a horseshoe that get bigger. That’s called a fortification spectrum. You may get something called Alice in Wonderland syndrome. When this happens, your body parts may seem distorted, or you may feel like a big person in a small room.

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Common visual aura symptoms include:

  • Flashes of bright lights
  • Foggy or blurry vision
  • Zigzag lines
  • Blind spots (scotoma)
  • Partial loss of vision
  • Small bright dots
  • A field of vision that looks like a heat wave or water
  • Colored spots

Sometimes, you may have:

  • An inability to judge distances
  • Fractured vision, like looking through broken glass
  • Visions of things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Tunnel vision
  • Short-term blindness

Sensory. These symptoms aren’t as likely as visual changes. But you could have:

  • Weakness in your arm or leg
  • Numbness or tingling on one side of your face or body
  • Neck stiffness
  • Balance issues
  • Dizziness
  • A feeling of spinning (vertigo)
  • Stomach problems
  • Trouble hearing
  • Ringing in your ears

Speech. Less commonly, you may have trouble talking. You may not be able to say the right words. Or your sentences may not make sense. You may not be able to understand what people say.

Any of these symptoms could also be signs of a stroke. If you have new symptoms that are different for you, call 911 and get help right away.

Migraine With Aura

The nerves in your brain get more active before you get a migraine. Experts think this is what causes aura. It happens in about a quarter of people who get migraines. Your headache may come an hour or so later. But you may not always get pain after, especially if you’re over 50.

Visual changes are the most common signs of a typical migraine with aura. But you could have sensory or speech issues too. Rarely, you could get migraine with brainstem aura. With that, you may get other symptoms like confusion or fainting.

If you get a migraine, you may also have:

  • Throbbing on one or both sides of your head (typical migraine with aura)
  • Pain in the back of your head (migraine with brainstem aura)
  • Nausea
  • Throwing up
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and smells

There isn’t a medicine that treats aura. But you’re less likely to get these symptoms if you prevent your headaches. To avoid migraine triggers, it may help to:

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If you get more than four headaches a month, or if they last more than 12 hours, talk to your doctor. They can give you medicine that may prevent them, including:

A retinalmigraine is different than a typical migraine with aura. It only affects one eye. You may see twinkling lights or not be able to see at all. If this happens, you should get medical help right away. Unlike normal migraines, a retinal migraine may be serious. Your doctor can rule out other serious medical conditions or eye damage.

Blind spots or vision changes may not be serious. But you should see a doctor right away anytime you see new floating spots or have a change in your vision, even if it’s temporary. They can make sure you didn’t have a stroke. They can also check the nerve that connects your eye to your brain.

Seizure With Aura

An epilepsy aura is sometimes called a focal aware seizure (FAS). Symptoms may only last a few seconds to several minutes. But it can be a sign that a more serious seizure is about to happen. You may get it before you faint. If you know what to look out for, you may be able to get somewhere safe before your seizure starts.

Symptoms of epilepsy aura include:

  • A feeling of déjà vu
  • An uneasy feeling in your stomach
  • A weird taste or smell
  • A strong sense of joy or fear
  • Numbness or pain in your head or limbs
  • Dizziness
  • Nervousness
  • Nausea

You’ll need to prevent your seizures to stop the auras. Your doctor can help you find the right treatment. They may give you medicine. In some cases, you may need nerve stimulation or surgery. If other treatments fail, your doctor may suggest a special diet.

Migrainous Stroke

Migraine with aura can come before a stroke. But it happens in less than 1% of all strokes. Experts aren’t sure why this happens. They do know that you’re more likely to have a stroke if you have a history of migraine with aura. It’s also more common in women 45 and younger. That may be because of hormonal changes. Hormonal birth control also increases the chances you’ll get blood clots.

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You should look for signs of aura mixed with stroke symptoms, including:

  • Numbness or weakness on one side of your body
  • Confusion
  • Trouble talking, seeing, or walking
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • A really bad headache

You may be able to lower your chances of having a stroke if you:

Always call 911 if you think a loved one is having a stroke. They need medical attention right away.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Migraine Foundation: “Migraine and Aura,” “Migraine and Cardiovascular Disease,” “Migraine with Brainstem Aura (Basilar Type Migraine),” “Retinal Migraine.” 

Epilepsy Society (UK): “Epilepsy Auras.”

International Headache Society: “IHS Classification ICHD-3: Typical aura without headache.”

Stroke and Vascular Neurology: “Migraine and stroke.”

Merck Manual: “Migraine.”

Stanford Medicine, Scope: “Stanford headache specialist demystifies migraine auras.”

The Journal of Headache and Pain: “Clinical features of visual migraine aura: a systematic review,” “Neuroimaging clues of migraine aura,” “Aura and Stroke: relationship and what we have learnt from preclinical models.” 

National Headache Foundation: “Aura.”

BioMed Research International: “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: A Clinical and Pathophysiological Review.”

National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences: “Migraine with brainstem aura.”

Cedars-Sinai: “Migrainous Stroke.” 

Mayo Clinic: “Migraine with aura.” 

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Migraine Information Page,” “Epilepsy Information Page.” 

Review of Optometry: “Visual Aura and Scotomas: What Do They Indicate?”

Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Tonic-Clonic (Grand Mal) Seizures.”

Chinese Medical Journal: “Clinical Analysis of Partial Epilepsy with Auras.”

Epilepsy Currents: “Auras Are Frequent in Patients With Generalized Epilepsy.”

American Heart Association: “Migraine with aura linked to clot-caused strokes.”

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