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What are Triptans?

By D. Jeffress
Updated May 17, 2024
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Triptans are prescription medications used to treat symptoms of severe, acute migraines. They are one of the most commonly prescribed classes of headache drugs because they are highly effective and carry minimal risks of adverse side effects. Triptans are selective serotonin receptor agonists, meaning that they increase the amount of available serotonin in the brain, which in turn leads to blood vessel constriction. There are several different subtypes of triptans, and a doctor may try more than one variety when treating a patient to find the most effective one.

Migraines are the result of sudden changes in electrical activity in the brain and subsequent blood vessel dilation and inflammation. Triptans work to reverse all three components. As they bind to serotonin receptors in arteries and veins, the blood vessels naturally begin to constrict. The drugs also stop the production of inflammation-inducing peptides to prevent headaches from getting worse. The exact mechanism of action on nerve cells is not yet clear, but it is believed that serotonin receptors on nerve endings are calmed and stabilized when triptan is present.

Some popular varieties of triptans include almotriptan, frovatriptan, naratriptan, and eletriptan. The most common variety, and the first to be marketed on a worldwide scale, is called sumatriptan. In the United States, Canada, and Europe, sumatriptan is sold in both generic varieties and under the trade names Imitrex® and Imigran®. It is available in oral tablets, nasal spray solutions, and injections. Each method of delivery is highly effective, and the best method for a particular patient is largely determined by his or her personal preferences.

Exact dosage amounts are calculated on a patient-to-patient basis according to an individual's age, the severity of symptoms, and the frequency of migraines suffered. Most people are able to find quick relief from symptoms with a single dose of triptan during an acute attack. In general, the drugs work best when they are taken at the earliest signs of an impending headache. Triptans cannot prevent migraines from starting or reduce the frequency of attacks, so daily prophylactic medications may be prescribed as well.

The most common side effects of triptans include flushing in the face, temporary dizziness, and weakness. Some people become nauseous and experience chest and abdominal pain. When used in nasal spray form, triptans can cause dryness and irritation. Injections also may cause itchiness and a small, painless local skin rash. Rare cases of dramatically increased blood pressure, stroke, and heart attack have been reported as well. An individual who experiences any uncomfortable side effects should speak with his or her doctor to learn about other migraine treatment options.

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