Some things in life are under your control, like what you wear when you know it’s going to rain all day. Others, like the forecast itself, aren’t. So, if you get migraines that seem connected to the weather, it can feel like you got seriously screwed in the health department.
Any number of weather conditions can trigger a migraine in people who are susceptible, including bright sunlight, extreme heat or cold, sun glare, high humidity, dry air, high winds, storms, and changes in atmospheric pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“Weather is a very common [migraine] trigger for my patients,” Kevin Weber, M.D., a neurologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF. Amit Sachdev, M.D., an assistant professor and director of neuromuscular medicine at Michigan State University, tells SELF he sees migraine patients with a weather trigger “at least several times per week.”
What’s behind this connection? And what can you do if you have weather-induced migraines? We consulted neurologists to find out.
Migraines are slightly different in everyone, but the takeaway is that they can come with a plethora of sucky symptoms.
This health condition usually causes severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, often on just one side of the head, the Mayo Clinic says. That pain can also come with a side of nausea, vomiting, extreme sensitivity to light and sound, and aura (sensory disturbances). There are even some migraines that don’t cause pain and just disturb your vision or make you dizzy.
Researchers don’t definitely know what’s behind migraines, but it could be changes in your brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, a major pain pathway in your body, the Mayo Clinic says. Imbalances in your brain chemicals, including serotonin, which helps regulate pain, may also play a role. Scientists know that your levels of serotonin drop when you have a migraine, which could cause your trigeminal nerve to release molecules called neuropeptides that travel to your brain's outer covering and cause pain, the Mayo Clinic says.
While the specific cause of migraines is still under debate, it is clear that a bunch of different things can trigger them, including stress, hormonal fluctuations, alcohol and caffeine, and, weirdly enough, the weather.
It’s possible that the weather can cause migraine symptoms by influencing things like your brain chemicals and blood vessels.
Researchers haven’t yet landed on what, exactly, is going on when it comes to migraines and the weather. One potential factor is that some types of weather changes can cause imbalances in brain chemicals like serotonin, which can then trigger migraines, the Mayo Clinic says. Extreme heat, high humidity, and atmospheric pressure changes are a few triggers some doctors attribute to this mechanism, Hsinlin Cheng, M.D., director of the Headache and Neuropathic Pain Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells SELF.
Then there’s the theory that air pressure fluctuations can prompt changes in your body like dilation of your blood vessels, which can in turn spark migraines, Dr. Weber explains.
Also, get this: “There is a theory that headaches triggered by extreme weather are a protective mechanism to keep people from harmful conditions [and] improve chance of survival in the wild,” Dr. Cheng says. This idea centers around the thinking that migraines may be your body’s response to oxidative stress, which is a process that can lead to cell damage (and has been connected to all sorts of diseases). Some research has pointed to certain weather conditions, like high winds, possibly causing oxidative stress via air pollution, but more research studies need to be done.
It’s worth noting that it’s tough to pinpoint weather as an actual trigger for some people’s migraines, Paul Later, M.D., a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, tells SELF. There are plenty of other factors you deal with every day that can also influence this condition, like how well you sleep, what you eat, where you are in your menstrual cycle, and how stressed you are. It could be that those things are causing your migraines, and any simultaneous weather changes are a coincidence, Dr. Later says. Also, for some people, it’s not that weather causes their migraines, but that it can sometimes make migraines triggered by other things even worse. (Makes sense when you consider dealing with intense sun glare or rolling thunder when you have a migraine.)
Since you probably won’t ever be able to dictate the weather (never say never), for now, you’ll have to handle your migraines with things like medication.
If you’re not sure whether or not the weather is really affecting your migraines, the Mayo Clinic suggests keeping a diary. In it, take note of each migraine you have, when it happened, how long it lasted, and what could have triggered it. This can help you pick up on any patterns you otherwise might not have noticed.
Let’s say you do indeed have weather-induced migraines. Don’t only keep tabs on the weather so you won’t get caught in a storm sans umbrella, but also so you can avoid your migraine triggers when possible, Dr. Cheng says. If cold air sparks your head pain, try to stay indoors on a freezing day if you can, and bundle up well when you do have to venture out. You get the picture. Lifestyle choices like eating well, exercising regularly, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and keeping your stress under control can also help lower the number of migraines you get, as well as how bad they are, the Mayo Clinic says.
If you do start to develop a migraine, take your medication right away. (Neurologists who deal with migraines say this is one of their biggest tips.) Different medications work well for different people, but pain relievers like aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or specific OTC migraine drugs can help with mild and moderate migraines, while prescription drugs like triptans (which make blood vessels constrict and block pain pathways in the brain) can help with more intense ones.
If your migraines are debilitating and don’t respond well to pain-relieving drugs, talk to your doctor about getting on a preventive medication, Dr. Weber says. There are a lot of options out there, including beta blockers (which reduce your blood pressure) and tricyclic antidepressants (these affect your levels of serotonin and other brain chemicals).
Whatever you do, don’t assume that you just have to deal with the pain. “Neurologists as a whole have become quite talented at treating migraine,” Dr. Sachdev says. Seeing a doctor can help you take more control over your migraines so you don’t feel like it’s just all up in the air.