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Aura and Migraine: Smells, Spots and Signals

Migraineurs experience many types of migraine pain. But when it comes down to it, there are essentially two categories: migraine without aura and migraine with aura. If you see flashing lights or smell a scent that isn’t really in the air shortly before you get a migraine, you are likely among the 30 percent of migraine sufferers who experience aura.1

What is aura?

An aura is a sensory warning sign that usually occurs just a few minutes before the onset of a migraine. Auras can affect different senses including sound (sensitivity) and touch (tingling). Visual auras are the most common and can appear as flashing lights, zig zags, lines or spots.

Less common, but very distinctive, is olfactory hallucination, an aura in which the migraineur smells a scent that’s not really there. A recent study at the Montefiore Headache Center in New York City examined 2,100 patients over a 30-month period and found that only 1 percent of them experienced olfactory hallucination prior to a headache.2 The most common smell was the scent of burning or smoke. Other smells included decomposition, citrus and coffee beans.

What causes aura?

Migraineurs who experience aura are thought to have more sensitive nerves in the brain.1 In the case of visual aura, visual stimulation (such as bright headlights) can cause these hypersensitive nerves to fire. This leads to more brain activity which, in turn, leads to the appearance of new sights that aren’t there—almost like the brain is overcompensating. The same goes for the other senses (e.g., if a strong smell stimulates the nerves, it could lead to the appearance of phantom smells prior to a migraine).

Other experts describe aura as electrical or chemical waves in the brain that result in hallucinations (e.g., as the brain tries to process a strong smell, the brain waves spread causing new phantom smells).3

To lower your migraine risk, steer clear of scents and light patterns that could trigger an attack (and reappear as an aura). And use your aura as a helpful warning that a migraine is on its way.

Do you experience migraine with aura? What is your aura like?



1. Everyday Health.

2. News Max Health.

3. Mayo Clinic.

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