What is Visual Aura?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2022

Migraine attacks are often more complex than just a simple headache. They can be accompanied by other symptoms and changes in your senses. These types of attacks are called migraine with aura.1

About 25 to 30 percent of people living with migraine experience any type of aura. Of those, 90 to 99 percent experience visual auras. Visual auras are changes in your vision, such as:1,2

  • Blind spots
  • Patterns
  • Flashes of light

Visual auras often happen before the headache phase of a migraine begins. So they are sometimes considered a warning sign. The aura usually occurs 30 minutes to an hour before the head pain, but it can also happen during the headache phase. And it may not happen with every single migraine.2

Auras are temporary and should only last as long as the migraine itself.3

What do visual auras look like?

People living with migraine experience a wide variety of visual auras. A 2019 study looked at how people described their auras to see what was common. The types of auras people most often reported were:4

  • Flickering lights
  • Zigzag lines
  • Small bright dots
  • A single blind spot
  • Blurry or foggy vision
  • Flashes of bright lights
  • Loss of vision in one eye
  • Tunnel vision

What causes this type of aura?

The most popular theory explaining migraine with aura is called “cortical spreading depression.”3

Brain cells, or neurons, work by spreading a chemical and electrical wave from one cell to the next. In cortical spreading depression, a large wave spreads across the outer layer of the brain (cortex). This wave tells the neurons it reaches to stop firing or to fire differently. This message makes the brain act abnormally. Experts believe that it causes the sensory changes seen in auras.3

What triggers attacks with aura?

Migraine with aura is triggered by the same things that trigger migraine without aura. Common triggers include:2

  • Bright lights
  • Certain foods
  • Medicines
  • Stress
  • The menstrual cycle

How do I treat this type of attack?

Treatment for migraine with or without aura is generally the same. Because the aura ends when the migraine ends, treatment focuses on stopping the migraine or relieving the pain. Some of the drugs that are used for migraine are:1,2

Pain relievers, like:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Ibuprofen
  • Aspirin
  • Sumatriptan, a drug that can block pain messages being sent in the brain
  • Dihydroergotamine, a drug delivered that temporarily shrinks the blood vessels in the brain so that they put less pressure on the brain
  • Magnesium, a natural supplement that may stop visual auras

What should I do if I experience visual auras?

It is important to tell your doctor if you experience visual auras. This helps them understand your symptoms better. It also may help them distinguish between a new vision problem and your usual visual auras.3

It is also important to tell your doctor if you experience migraine with auras because they are a risk factor for other serious conditions, including:4

  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Abnormal heart rhythms, such as atrial fibrillation

If you may become pregnant and you have migraine with aura, you should not use certain birth control methods.4

Migraine with aura can mimic other serious conditions like stroke. If you are ever concerned about your migraine symptoms, reach out to your doctor or go to the emergency room.2

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