Managing migraines at home

A migraine is a common type of headache. It may occur with symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light. Most people feel a throbbing pain on only one side of their head during a migraine.

Some people who get migraines have warning signs, called an aura, before the actual headache begins. An aura is a group of symptoms that includes vision changes. An aura is a warning sign that a bad headache is coming.

Migraine headaches can be triggered by certain foods. The most common are:

Any processed, fermented, pickled, or marinated foods, as well as foods that contain monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Baked goods, chocolate, nuts, and dairy products
Fruits (such as avocado, banana, and citrus fruit)
Meats containing sodium nitrates, such as bacon, hot dogs, salami, and cured meats
Red wine, aged cheese, smoked fish, chicken liver, figs, and certain beans
Alcohol, stress, hormonal changes, skipping meals, lack of sleep, certain odors or perfumes, loud noises or bright lights, exercise, and cigarette smoking may also trigger a migraine.

When You Get a Migraine
Try to treat your symptoms right away. This may help make the headache less severe. When migraine symptoms begin:

Drink water to avoid dehydration, especially if you have vomited
Rest in a quiet, dark room
Place a cool cloth on your head
Avoid smoking or drinking coffee or caffeinated drinks
Avoid drinking alcoholic beverages
Try to sleep
Over-the-counter pain medicines, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin, are often helpful when your migraine is mild.

Your health care provider may have prescribed medicines to stop a migraine. These drugs come in different forms. They may come as a nasal spray, rectal suppository, or injection instead of pills. Other medicines can treat nausea and vomiting.

Follow your provider’s instructions about how to take all of your medicines. Rebound headaches are headaches that keep coming back. They can occur from overuse of pain medicine. If you take pain medicine more than 3 days a week on a regular basis, you can develop rebound headaches.

Preventing Migraine Headaches
A headache diary can help you identify your headache triggers. When you get a headache, write down:

Day and time the pain began
What you ate and drank over the past 24 hours
How much you slept
What you were doing and where you were right before the pain started
How long the headache lasted and what made it stop
Review your diary with your provider to identify triggers or a pattern to your headaches. This can help you and your provider create a treatment plan. Knowing your triggers can help you avoid them.

Lifestyle changes that may help include:

Avoid triggers that seem to bring on a migraine headache.
Get regular sleep and exercise.
Slowly decrease the amount of caffeine you drink every day.
Learn and practice stress management. Some people find relaxation exercises and meditation helpful.
Quit smoking and drinking alcohol.
If you have frequent migraines, your provider may prescribe medicine to reduce the number of them. You need to take this medicine every day for it to be effective. Your provider may have you try more than one drug before deciding which works best for you.

When to Call the Doctor
Call 911 if:

You are experiencing “the worst headache of your life.”
You have speech, vision, or movement problems or loss of balance, especially if you have not had these symptoms with a headache before.
A headache starts suddenly or is explosive in nature.
Schedule an appointment or call your provider if:

Your headache patterns or pain changes.
Treatments that once worked are no longer help.
You have side effects from your medicine.
You are pregnant or could become pregnant. Some medicines should not be taken during pregnancy.
You need to take pain medicines more than 3 days a week.
You are taking birth control pills and have migraine headaches.
Your headaches are more severe when lying down.
Alternative Names
Headache – migraine – self-care; Vascular headache – self-care

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Marmura MJ, Silberstein SD, Schwedt TJ. The acute treatment of migraine in adults: the American Headache Society evidence assessment of migraine pharmacotherapies. Headache. 2015;55(1):3-20. PMID: 25600718

Waldman SD. Migraine headache. In: Waldman SD, ed. Atlas of Common Pain Syndromes. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 2.