You put your hand on your head and there's no doubt in your mind: This one is gonna be a doozy. Whether it's the first time you've had a powerful headache or it's a regular thing, you may be wondering: Just what kind do I have?

Migraines and cluster headaches have some of the same symptoms, but there are ways to tell them apart so you can get the right kind of relief.


Both types of headaches cause intense pain. But the way they hurt and where you feel them differ.

Migraine gives you a throbbing pain. You might feel it on both sides of your head, on one side only, or along your forehead. It will likely get more intense when you move your head.

And that's not all. With migraine, you may also get:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, and smells
  • Colored spots, lines, flashing lights, or sparkles in your vision, called auras
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Weakness
  • Trouble speaking or hearing

The pain of a cluster headache is often more severe than a migraine. Sometimes, the word "agonizing" isn't too strong a way to describe it. For some folks, it feels so bad they have to get up and walk back and forth until it fades.

A cluster headache usually hurts just on one side. Often the pain is centered over one eye, your temple, or on one side of your forehead.

Along with the headache, you might also have:

  • A red, teary eye on the same side as your head pain
  • Swelling around that one eye
  • Stuffy, runny nose
  • Droopy eyelid
  • Sweating
  • Redness in your face
  • Sensitivity to light


How They Start

Migraine headaches begin slowly and can last for a few hours to a few days. You might get some warning signs up to a day before it starts, like cravings for certain foods or changes in your mood. You might also see auras just before the migraine hits.

After the headache ends, you can have a sort of "hangover," where you feel tired or confused. You may hear your doctor call this a postdrome period.

It's a different story with cluster headaches. They come on quickly. Each one can last for about 15 minutes up to 3 hours. As the name suggests, they come in clusters, often around the same time each day. You might get up to eight a day for a few weeks or months. Then they'll go away for months or years, which doctors call remission.

What Causes Migraine?

Doctors don't know for sure. Experts think it starts when brain activity temporarily changes nerve signals across the brain. That touches off a release of chemicals that can lead to inflammation and swelling of blood vessels in the brain. 

Migraines have certain triggers, which are different for everyone. Some things that might set off your headache are:

  • Changes in the weather
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Strong smells
  • Stress
  • Loud noises
  • Too little food
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Certain medicines

Hormone changes can also kick off migraines, like those during your period, pregnancy, or when you take birth control pills.

Caffeine and the flavoring known as MSG can be triggers for some people. So can wine, chocolate, aged cheeses, fermented foods, and processed meats.

What Causes Cluster Headaches?

They start when the nerve that senses feeling to your face gets activated. Experts don't know why this happens. They think it may involve changes to your biological clock, the body's system for keeping you on a regular sleep schedule.

Cluster headaches don't have a long list of triggers, the way migraines do. Some people, though, say drinking alcohol or smoking can set off an episode or make it worse. You may find your trouble begins during a change of season; for example, at the start of fall or spring.

What's Next?

You don't have to put up with either type of headache. Once you and your doctor figure out what's going on, you can make a plan to deal with it.

Whichever kind of headache is giving you problems, you've got two basic strategies. You either try to prevent the pain or ease it once it begins. There are medicines and other treatments that can do both.

WebMD Medical Reference


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