How effective are triptans at treating migraines?

Donna Hill Howes, RN
Family Practitioner

Oral triptans are usually effective for mild migraines. The most effective are rizatriptan and eletriptan. Almotriptan, naratriptan, and frovatriptan are slower acting, but may have fewer side effects. Triptans are also available as injection drugs, skin patches, rectal suppositories, and nasal sprays. These forms are absorbed faster than pills. They are often better for people who have nausea or vomiting with their headaches and those whose symptoms worsen rapidly. 

Sumatriptan is most effective when injected and least effective when taken by mouth. Sumatriptan injections (6 mg) reduce moderate or severe migraine pain to none within 2 hours in 6 out of 10 people, compared with oral sumatriptan (50 mg) in 3 out of 10 people. Injections are also the fastest-acting route. Zolmitriptan (2.5 mg) is about as effective as sumatriptan. 

Triptans may be most effective when they are taken early in the course of a migraine. But it is important to take these drugs only when you are sure you're having a migraine and not another kind of headache. For people who have migraine with aura, it is important to wait until the aura has passed and the headache has begun before using an injected triptan. Otherwise, the drug will not be effective. 

Injected triptans are effective for up to 80% of people who take them. Oral and nasal spray triptans are effective for up to 70%. About one-third of people whose headaches are relieved by a triptan have a recurrence of the headache within 24 hours.

Any form of triptan should be tried at least three different times. If the drug is not effective for three headaches in a row, another triptan or another form of the same triptan can be prescribed, such as a skin patch or suppository. Sometimes another form is more effective. 

This answer was adapted from Sharecare's award-winning AskMD app. Start a consultation now to find out what's causing your symptoms, learn how to manage a condition, or find a doctor.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.