Published on May 10, 2024 at 8:00 / Updated on May 25, 2024 at 8:00

Headaches are common in adults. There are many types of headaches, with migraine and tension headaches being the most common.

The difference between a migraine and a tension headache

CharacteristicsMigraineTension headache
Type of painThrobbing sensationFeeling of pressure or tightness
IntensityModerate to severe (pain intensifies gradually)Less pain than a migraine
LocationOne side of the head (usually)Both sides of the head
Duration4 to 72 hours30 minutes to 7 days
Pain worsened by physical activityYesNo
Other symptoms that may accompany pain
  • Nausea or vomiting;
  • Sensitivity to light and sound;
  • An aura (often a visual symptom) that occurs just before the migraine, and is usually described as flashes of light or zigzag lines
Tenderness in the muscles of the neck and shoulders

Causes and triggers

Several factors can trigger headaches. To help identify what your triggers are, consider keeping a headache diary.

Here are some of the most common triggers:

  • Stress
  • Menstrual periods
  • Certain foods (e.g., coffee, chocolate) and alcoholic beverages (especially red wine)
  • Lack of sleep
  • Hunger
  • Dehydration

Certain medications (e.g., birth control pill) and chemicals (e.g., perfumes, smoke and other products with a strong odour) can also trigger headaches.


During an episode, it can help to lie down in a room that is cool, dark and quiet. You may also take medication to help manage the pain associated with the migraine or tension headache. Start by checking with your pharmacist to make sure these types of medications are safe for you to use. There are two types of drug treatments:

  • Medications aimed at relieving pain:
    • Certain pain relievers are available over-the-counter (e.g., Motrin, Tylenol, Advil), while others must be prescribed by your healthcare provider. Try not to take these products too often, as they may contribute to medication-overuse headaches.
  • Medications aimed at preventing future headaches:
    • Your healthcare professional may prescribe these medications if you suffer from frequent headaches, especially if you experience regular migraines. These products help reduce headache frequency.

To prevent new migraines or tension headaches from occurring, be sure to adopt healthy lifestyle habits. The following preventive measures may help reduce the frequency and intensity of your headaches:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat at least three meals a day
  • Reduce stress
  • Get some exercise
  • Avoid trigger foods
  • Lose weight if overweight

Seek medical attention immediately if your headache...

  • Comes on suddenly, becomes severe within a few minutes, or could be described as the worst headache of your life
  • Is severe and occurs with a fever or stiff neck
  • Occurs with a seizure, personality changes, confusion, or passing out
  • Begins shortly after strenuous exercise or a minor injury
  • Is new and occurs with weakness, numbness or difficulty seeing

For more information:

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