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.
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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