Migraine is a severe, throbbing headache often affecting just one side of the head. Light, noise, movement and strong odours normally make the migraine worse. Other symptoms can include feeling sick, vomiting and sometimes diarrhoea. Most migraine sufferers are unable to carry on with normal daily duties during an attack which can last from a couple of hours up to several days.Some migraine attacks are preceded by warning signs known as an 'aura'. These signs can include visual disturbances and numbness or weakness of the arms or legs. Migraine preceded by warning signs is known as 'classical migraine' whereas migraine without any warning signs is known as 'common migraine'.

Migraine affects one in ten people in Britain with first attacks usually occurring before the age of twenty. Migraine affects more women than men and can run in families.


Migraine is thought to be caused by the widening of blood vessels in the brain which can be triggered by one or more of the following:

  • Food-related factor (lack of food, skipped meals, tyramine, monosodium glutamate, polyphenols, caffeine, citrus fruits)
    • Tyramine is a chemical. It can be found in fermented foods, salami, other smoked sausages and cheese (especially blue cheese, mature Cheddar, Gruy√®re and Parmesan)
    • Monosodium glutamate or 'MSG' is a flavour enhancer found in Chinese food, gravy powders, stock cubes, packet soups and tinned and processed meats
    • Polyphenols are present in red wine and port
    • Caffeine can be found in tea, coffee, drinking chocolate, cola and chocolate
    • Citrus fruits include oranges, lemons, limes and grapefruit
  • Sensory factor (Loud noise, strong odours, bright lights, flickering lights and computer screens)
  • Emotional factor (stress, anxiety, anger and excitement)
  • Hormonal factor (menstruation, the menopause and taking the contraceptive pill or hormone replacement therapy (HRT))
  • Physical exertio (strenuous exercise, feeling over-tired and irregular sleeping patterns)
  • Climate (extreme temperatures and strong wind)

Avoiding Migraine

Whatever is triggering the migraine attacks should be identified and avoided if possible. To find out whether food is the cause, it may be useful to keep a diary of meals to try and establish a pattern. Do not smoke.


Migraine can not be cured but it can often be controlled or prevented by medicines. Simple pain relief treatments are often adequate to ease the pain of migraine and many can be bought over the counter at a pharmacy. Most migraine treatments contain either aspirin, paracetamol or ibuprofen. Some also contain codeine, a stronger painkiller or an anti-emetic which prevents sickness and allows the painkiller to be absorbed more effectively. Curative medicines should be taken as soon as a migraine starts. Soluble treatments may be more appropriate for those who are usually vomit during a migraine attack as they are absorbed more rapidly.Lying in a darkened room and placing a cool, damp cloth on the forehead can also help.

When To See A Doctor

Those who do not respond to over the counter treatments should see a doctor. Other treatments are available on prescription.

Additional Information

For more information about migraine, contact the Migraine Action Association, 178a High Road, Byfleet, Surrey KT14 7ED. Tel: 01932 352468. Fax: 01932 351257. E-mail: info@migraine.org.uk. Website address: www.migraine.org.uk.