Can Weather Changes Really Trigger Migraines?
If you’ve ever heard someone say, “Ugh, the humidity is giving me a headache,” you might be wondering if there’s any validity to the connection between the weather and head pain.
After all, while it's easy to chalk headaches up to simply not drinking enough water, there are a ton of other factors at play, like stress, hormones, and caffeine— so it's not too crazy to think that shifts in the weather could be involved, too.
Spoiler alert: There is a correlation, but it's not exactly as cut and dried as you might think. Here, experts weigh in on how the onset of a new season or sudden change in weather can trigger headaches and migraines.
VIDEO: 5 Quick At-Home Cold Remedies
How weather changes can trigger headaches and migraines:
“For some people, changes in barometric pressure — aka the measurement of how much air is in the atmosphere — and rising or cooling temperatures cause the temperature in the body to shift, triggering a migraine attack or headache,” explains Sara Crystal, M.D., a neurologist and headache specialist at New York Headache Center and medical advisor for Cove.
According to one 2017 study, barometric pressure and weather changes can also predict the severity of a headache or migraine. For example, the study authors noted that a drop in barometric pressure led to reduced blood flow and muscle fatigue, which could play a part in the level of head pain a person experiences.
In another study published in the Journal of Headache Pain, researchers found that 52 percent of participants (all migraine patients) reported sensitivity to temperature. The study also found that those who reported temperature sensitivity were more likely to have an increase in migraines during the winter — but any weather change can be a potential headache or migraine trigger.
In addition to extreme heat or cold or changes in atmospheric pressure, other culprits include high humidity, dry air, sun glare or bright sunlight, and windy or stormy weather, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Still, despite plenty of anecdotal support, more research is needed to confirm the connection. “Although it’s common for people to report that extreme weather (both hot and cold) can trigger their migraines, there's a lack of evidence to support this,” says Dr. Crystal.
That’s in part because it’s hard to isolate one root cause of chronic headaches and migraines (which in addition to head pain comes with additional symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light). While weather changes may play a part, it’s most likely one factor in a mix of other triggers, like fatigue, stress or lack of sleep, says the American Migraine Foundation Migraine.
Your 'seasonal headache' could actually be a cluster headache.
If you experience painful headaches that seem to happen cyclically, your “seasonal headache” could also be what’s known as a cluster headache, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist and immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network.
Dr. Parikh explains that a cluster headache occurs when the trigeminal nerve — which runs around your eye, cheek, and forehead — is triggered, causing severe pain. (With cluster headaches, it's common to be woken up in the middle of the night with intense pain in or around one eye, according to the Mayo Clinic.)
When her patients complain of head pain tied to weather changes, cluster headaches are typically the culprit, Dr. Parikh says. “Cluster headaches often occur in fall and spring when our bodily clocks are trying to adjust to daylight savings," she explains. (One study found that peaks in cluster headaches were reported around solstices, in relation to changes in daylight duration.)
Still, the cause of cluster headaches — and the connection between them and our body's circadian rhythm — is unknown, she says.
How seasonal allergies come into play:
When it comes to headaches that coincide with weather changes, there's another possibility in the air: good ‘ol seasonal allergies.
“If your headaches are also associated with a runny nose, stuffy nose, sneezing coughing, itchy, watery eyes, or blocked, itchy ears, there could be an allergic component to them,” Dr. Parikh says.
“Headaches due to hay fever or allergic rhinitis — which is defined as inflammation of the upper airway after exposure to inhaled allergens — are often confused with migraines,” she says, adding that the two types of headaches “share many features,” making them difficult to diagnose. To make things even more complicated, migraine headaches are more frequent in people who already suffer from seasonal allergies, Dr. Crystal adds.
Bottom line: If you're tracking your headaches or migraines and it seems like seasonal changes, head to your doc stat to pinpoint the root cause of your head pain.