Key points about triptans

  • Triptans are a group of painkillers used for migraine disease and cluster headaches.
  • They work by releasing a chemical in your brain, called serotonin, which causes the blood vessels around the brain to contract (narrow).
  • This reverses the dilating (widening) of blood vessels that's believed to be part of the headache process.
Young woman closes eyes with headache pain
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Triptans are used during migraine attacks, for immediate relief of symptoms that have already begun. They are usually used if paracetamol or NSAIDs such as ibuprofen or diclofenac, don't help to relieve your migraine symptoms. Some people find using triptans together with paracetamol or NSAIDs effective. Read more about medicines for migraine.

Sumatriptan injection is also used to treat cluster headaches.  


Triptans are most effective if taken at the first signs of a migraine attack while the pain is still mild, as this gives it time to absorb into your bloodstream and ease your symptoms. A triptan should be taken early during a migraine attack but not during the aura phase.

Triptans are available as tablets or injection.

Triptan Also called
Rizatriptan tablets

  • Rizamelt®
Sumatriptan tablets
  • Imigran®
  • Apo-Sumatriptan®
  • Sumagran®, Sumagran Active®
Sumatriptan injection
  • Imigran®
  • Clustran®
Note: Zolmitriptan nasal spray (Zomig®) is no longer available in New Zealand.

Most triptans are similarly effective, so choice is usually based on personal preference. 

  • Tablets: if you prefer taking tablets, then sumatriptan or rizatriptan tablets may be useful. Rizatriptan tablets dissolve when placed on the tongue. They may be useful if you find drinking water during a migraine difficult or if you cannot swallow tablets. They are not useful if you are vomiting.
  • Injection: an injection may be better if you are vomiting, or if you develop a sudden migraine.

If one triptan does not relieve your migraine symptoms, you can try another one next time. If you do not respond to triptan tablets, you can give the injection a try.

Repeat doses

Do not repeat the dose of a triptan if you are not responding to the first dose. The dose can be repeated after 2 to 4 hours if there was initial relief from the migraine and it has then reoccurred. Be careful not to exceed the maximum daily dose. The following is a guide to repeated doses:

  • Sumatriptan tablet
    • dose may be repeated after 2 hours if migraine recurs
    • maximum 300 mg in 24 hours
  • Sumatriptan injection
    • dose may be repeated once after one hour if migraine recurs
    • maximum 12 mg in 24 hours
  • Rizatriptan tablet 
    • dose may be repeated after 2 hours if migraine recurs
    • maximum 30 mg in 24 hours.

Do not use triptans for more than 10 days per month

Medication overuse (also called rebound) headache is a headache cause by overuse of painkillers to treat headache, including the use of triptans for migraine. The symptoms include a tension-type headache or migraine-like attack. Headaches often improve within 7 to 10 days after the triptan has been stopped. Symptoms may be worse before an improvement is seen.

To avoid this, do not use triptans for more than 10 days per month. 

If you answer 'yes' to any of the following questions, it’s important that you tell your doctor or pharmacist before starting on a triptan.

  • Do you have problems with your liver or kidneys?
  • Do you have problems with high blood pressure (hypertension)?
  • Have you had a heart attack or do you get angina (chest pain)?
  • Have you had a stroke or do you get transient ischemia attacks?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Are you breastfeeding?
  • Are you taking medication for depression?

Sometimes a medicine isn’t suitable for a person with certain conditions, or it can only be used with extra care.

Like all medicines, triptans can cause side effects, but not everyone gets them. Often side effects improve as your body gets used to the medicine. Common side effects of triptans include:

  • feeling sick (nausea), dizziness and dry mouth
  • strange sensations such as tingling, flushing, or feeling of tightness or pressure in areas such as your face, limbs, and sometimes chest
  • your skin becoming very sensitive to touch, loss of sensitivity to heat and cold
  • hunger 
  • pain and discomfort in the lining of your nose, with use of the nasal spray
  • soreness and tingling at the injection site, with use of the injection.

Read more about medicines and side effects(external link) and reporting a reaction that you think might be a side effect(external link).

The following link provides further information about triptans. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Migraine medication, treatment and prevention(external link) Patient Info, UK, 2018


5 questions to ask about your medications(external link) Health Quality and Safety Commission, NZ, 2019 English(external link), te reo Māori(external link).


1. Treatment of acute migraine(external link) New Zealand Formulary
2. The role of triptans in the treatment of migraine in adults(external link) BPAC July 2014, NZ

  (external link)


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Credits: Sandra Ponen, Pharmacist, Healthify He Puna Waiora. Healthify is brought to you by Health Navigator Charitable Trust.

Reviewed by: Angela Lambie, Pharmacist, Auckland

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