MedExpress Team, clinically reviewed by Dr Tim Jollyman

Article by MedExpress Team, clinically reviewed by Dr Tim Jollyman

Cluster headache vs migraine: What’s the difference?

Suffering from migraines and cluster headaches can be debilitating and disrupt your day-to-day life. Although some of the symptoms appear to overlap, the conditions are different, and this difference is important to be aware of so you know how to treat it. 

Here’s how to tell if your headache is a migraine or a cluster headache, and how knowing this difference can help you find the right treatment.

What is a migraine?

A migraine can range from a moderate to severe headache, and it usually occurs on one side of the head. However, migraines can have other symptoms, including feeling nauseous, vomiting, being dizzy or sensitive to light, and finding particular sounds and smells intense. 

Leading up to a migraine, some people experience what is known as an ‘aura’. This is where warning signs are felt before the onset of the migraine. People have different experiences of an aura. Most commonly, people see flashing lights. Some people don’t get these warning signs before their migraine and interestingly, some people will get an aura without a migraine ever developing. Regarding frequency, some people can have migraines several times a week, whereas others only have a migraine occasionally.

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches develop very quickly, are intensely painful and occur in a concentrated area of the head, as the name suggests. Cluster headaches have been described as a piercing feeling on one side of the head and are usually focused behind one eye. The eye can also become red and watery, and the pupil can appear small. The sinuses can also be impacted, causing a runny or blocked nose. 

Unfortunately, these attacks can persist for consecutive days. Often at the same time of the day, for days, to months, and in some cases, years. This is usually followed by a period of remission. People can be fine for days or weeks, then experience a cluster of them occurring a number of times a day and lasting, typically, 30-45 minutes. This is why they’re called cluster headaches, and leaves sufferers with little control of their daily routine.

How common are migraines and cluster headaches? 

Migraines are relatively common, with NICE data suggesting they affect an estimated six million people in the UK alone. On the other hand, cluster headaches are much rarer, and only around 65,000 people experience them in the UK. 

The demographic of those with migraines also differs from people experiencing cluster headaches. People can start getting migraines at any age, but often they begin in adolescence, whilst cluster headaches tend to develop later in life from 30 onwards. To distinguish the difference between migraines and cluster headaches, it is important to consider age, length of attacks and other symptoms accompanying the headache. A professional consultation can help put your mind at ease. 

What treatment options are there for cluster headaches and migraines?

Luckily there are ways to ease the pain from either form of headache, but it is important to have the right treatment. 

It can be beneficial to talk to a clinician about your symptoms so they can diagnose either migraines or cluster headaches. You can order from our online pharmacy here for fast and convenient access to these medications.

Treatments for migraines

A range of migraine treatment options can easily be found on MedExpress. A group of medicines called triptans are commonly used to treat migraines and bind to specific receptors in the brain, reversing the changes which are thought to cause the onset of a migraine. Triptans can effectively treat migraines, and a specialist can help you find the right type to ease your symptoms. 

Treatment options for migraines include:

  • Over-the-counter medicines such as paracetamol or ibuprofen 
  • Triptan tablets
  • Triptan nasal sprays
  • Anti-nausea medication
  • Rest in a dark and quiet room 

Treatments for cluster headaches

For cluster headaches, you need faster-acting, more specific treatments than over-the-counter medications. Triptans (used for migraine treatment) can also be used. If you’ve suffered from cluster headaches for a while, there may be other treatment, or diagnostic opportunities and it is important you discuss these with your clinician.

Treatment options for cluster headaches include:

  • Triptans via injection 
  • Oxygen therapy 
  • Local anaesthetics

For both migraines and cluster headaches, it can help avoid any triggers, such as alcohol, stress or certain foods. 

Frustratingly, little is known about the cause of either cluster headaches or migraines. Research has suggested our genes may play a part in developing these conditions, and these conditions could be inherited. Further treatment options may become available through a better understanding of these conditions. 

Completing one of our free online consultations can help us learn more about your symptoms, so our team of medical experts can prescribe the right treatment to help. 

MedExpress is one of the few UK online pharmacies that are fully compliant with the Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Agency’s strict regulations on the sale and supply of prescription medicines. All our products are safe, authentic and prescribed by clinical experts.