Here's What A Migraine Aura Really Looks Like

Illustration by Jimmy Simpson.
The scariest part about getting a migraine aura is knowing the rest of the migraine is coming. To understand what it's like to get a migraine aura, you have to understand that, first of all, a migraine is not just a headache — it's a complete assault on your brain that can hijack your vision, pummel your head, and send your stomach into revolt. And a headache is just one part of that.
There are three stages to a classic migraine: the aura, the attack, and the hangover. If a person who gets migraines looks at a light bulb the wrong way, or has their picture taken with a flash, the fuzzy spots in their vision can trigger a visceral fear the aura is coming and the rest of their day is doomed. The "attack" phase involves an intense headache, typically on one side of a person's head, that can last for a few hours or days. About 75% of people with migraines will feel nauseous or vomit during the attack, too. Then, after all that fun, people can feel groggy or just out of it after a migraine, though some feel giddy that it's over.
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The reason why certain people get migraines is pretty much unknown, but what we do know is that migraines are the result of a wave of excitability that spreads across the different parts of your brain, like a thunderstorm passing through different neighborhoods. When someone experiences a visual aura, it's because the "electrical storm" is passing through your occipital lobe in your brain, which is the part that controls your vision, explains Mark Green, MD, director of headache and pain medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
"Visual auras are the most common [type of aura], but they can involve sensation and speech as well," Dr. Green says. An estimated 18% of women get migraines, and 15-20% of them will experience an aura along with it. While women aren't necessarily more likely to get auras, having an aura can be tied to increased estrogen levels, which can come from taking birth control pills, Dr. Green says. Prescription medications from your neurologist can help lessen the pain of an attack better than an OTC drug (such as Excedrin and Advil). And neurologists say you should take your medication as soon as you see or feel your aura come on. But even if you take it right away, it can't always stop the rest of the symptoms from happening.
There are countless variations of the types of visual auras people get, Dr. Green says. And if you've never experienced one, it's hard so imagine what they look and feel like. So we asked migraine sufferers to describe what they see when they get a migraine aura. Here's what it's like through their eyes.
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1 of 5
Illustration by Jimmy Simpson.
Letters or words disappear.

"I’ll be reading my phone, and half the letters disappear. That’s how I knew it was happening."
2 of 5
Illustration by Jimmy Simpson.
A vivid pattern that spreads with lines.

"I see a spot, like after you get your picture taken with the flash, and it doesn’t go away no matter what I do. Then, it spreads to what looks like a glass-shattered psychedelic pattern."
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3 of 5
Illustration by Jimmy Simpson.
Small clusters of lights on the sides of your eyes.

"It’s like when you squint at a Christmas tree or squint at a marquee or something — those blurry, shiny clusters of lights. They're around the peripherals of my vision. So if I look straight ahead, I'm okay, but I'll get these shimmering, shaking, white/yellow lights on the outskirts of my field of vision."
4 of 5
Illustration by Jimmy Simpson.
Blurry rings of rainbow light.

"A small circle appears in my vision — typically the right side — that's completely blurry and surrounded by a ring of bright, moving rainbow light — almost like what TV static used to look like. The circle usually travels or grows, expanding until I get an aching pain in my eye."
5 of 5
Illustration by Jimmy Simpson.
Shimmery spots that grow.

"Mine starts in the center of my visual field as a very small, shimmery patch with a zig-zag outline — kind of like the outline that's around superhero action descriptions in comic books when they punch someone, like 'KER-POW!' Then, over the course of about a half hour, the outline of that shimmery spot gets bigger and bigger until it's around the edges of my visual field, then disappears."
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