An airplane headache — a brief but intense headache during take-off or landing due to cabin pressure changes — typically comes on suddenly and only lasts about
But having a migraine episode before, during, or after a flight is another story.
All kinds of travel-related things can trigger migraine. A migraine episode can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours, meaning it can seriously derail your travel plans if you aren’t equipped with preventive and defensive tactics.
Whether you’re trying to avoid a migraine attack during your flight or need to quickly treat one, here are some tips for handling air travel when you have this condition.
Everything involved with getting ready for air travel — from the crowds and noisy fellow travelers to the less-than-healthy airport food options — could trigger a migraine episode.
Knowing this may help you prevent a migraine before you board your flight.
1. Get plenty of sleep
It might be hard depending on the timing of your flight, but it’s important to get enough sleep before air travel.
Try to keep it within the boundaries of your usual sleep schedule since
If you can’t maintain a regular sleep routine, try to at least nap before your flight.
2. Bring water and snacks
As simple as it sounds, water is an important tool in overcoming migraine. Dehydration can be a trigger, so be sure to drink plenty of water.
Similarly, skipping meals or eating sugary or processed foods can trigger migraine. Pack an arsenal of healthy snacks with plenty of protein, whole grains, and healthy fats. This will help you avoid hitting up the airport snack bar and indulging in junk food.
Good options include:
- oat or protein bars
- fresh fruit and veggies
- whole-grain crackers
Be sure to avoid alcohol or excessive amounts of caffeine, too, while you’re waiting around for your flight. Both are migraine triggers.
3. Plan ahead
Stress and migraine are connected, possibly because of fluctuating serotonin levels. Make sure you plan the details of your trip out well in advance.
Leave yourself plenty of time to get to the airport, check your baggage, and find your terminal. Rushing around pre-flight will leave you more vulnerable to an episode.
4. Pack your medications
Before you fly, check your prescriptions to ensure you have enough of your preventive and rescue medications. Talk with your doctor about refills, if necessary.
Pack an emergency kit of migraine medications for your carry-on, not the luggage you’re checking. You want to be sure you have those medications with you in case you need them.
5. Be ready to respond
If a migraine episode starts while you’re waiting for your flight, it’s important to be proactive in treating it. You might be able to prevent it from getting worse if you take your rescue medication right away.
Find a darker, quieter, and more comfortable corner of the airport to rest in for a while before your flight.
You’ve made it onto the plane without a migraine, but that’s only half the battle. There are plenty of triggers on board the plane as well, like changing barometric pressure levels, bright lights, and stale in-cabin air. Here’s how to cope.
6. Prepare for take-off and landing
While migraine can strike at any time, take-off and landing are the two phases of air travel most likely to provoke head pain. Again, this is pressure-related.
The pressure inside the cabin is different from that outside. A similar contrast may also be happening inside your body. The pressure inside your sinus cavity remains at a different level from the pressure inside the cabin.
There’s no surefire way to prevent this imbalance. But some people find that chewing gum and using earplugs, especially during take-off and landing, can offset it enough to avoid a headache.
7. Block out triggers
Maybe you’re sitting beneath the blowing air conditioning fan. Maybe your seatmate orders the tuna salad sandwich. Maybe the person in front of you is keeping their overhead light on for the entire flight.
Whatever the source, being on an airplane can trigger sensory overload. Being prepared to counteract your biggest triggers can go a long way toward preventing migraine. Here are some common triggers and ways to overcome them.
- Light: Bring a sleep mask or dark, wrap-around sunglasses.
- Noise: Bring earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
- Smells: Bring a small amount of a smell you like or one that relaxes you, like a roll-on bottle of peppermint essential oil.
Even if you do all you can, migraine is unpredictable. You may still end up with one mid-flight. What should you do?
8. Treat migraine as soon as possible
Don’t hesitate to take your rescue medication as soon as you feel the first signs of migraine mid-flight. This isn’t the time to “wait and see” if it gets worse. Treat your migraine right away.
9. Talk with the flight attendants
People with migraine sometimes feel embarrassed about their condition. But letting the flight attendants know that you’re in the middle of an episode can make your experience much more comfortable.
They’ve likely helped a lot of other passengers with migraine or airplane headaches before. They might be able to bring you things that can give you some extra comfort, such as:
- ice or heat packs
- a blanket or pillow
- ginger ale
- extra water
If the flight isn’t overly crowded, they may even be able to relocate you to another seat where you can lie down or escape something that’s triggering you.
10. Settle your stomach
If you’re prone to nausea and vomiting during a migraine episode, equip yourself with an air sickness bag and focus on keeping your stomach settled. Helpful actions include:
- sipping ginger ale
- eating saltines
- sucking on peppermint candies
- taking any anti-nausea medication you brought in your carry-on
You’re almost out of the woods! But all that sensory input combined with the stress of trying to avoid a migraine episode for hours on end can trigger one after your flight.
Here’s how to cope if you get a migraine episode — or want to avoid one — in the post-flight letdown.
11. Pause and recharge
Whether you’re hungry, thirsty, achy, or just plain irritable, take some time post-flight to practice a little self-care. Your destination can usually wait long enough for you to hydrate, refuel with a healthy meal or snack, stretch your body, and get some fresh air.
Step off to a quiet, uncrowded area and take some deep breaths. Run through a simple mindfulness routine, or call a friend if you feel anxious.
12. Get some extra rest
Once you reach your destination, resist the temptation to jump right into unpacking or moving on to the next activity.
Find a place to relax and let your body acclimate. A well-timed nap can make all the difference.
Can flying cause a migraine episode?
Many typical daily activities can cause a migraine episode, including air travel. Not only are you more likely to be stressed about flying, but you’re also more likely to encounter migraine triggers and have less control over them.
There’s also the issue of barometric pressure and how frequently it changes during a flight. This can trigger a headache for anyone, especially those prone to migraine.
Do migraine attacks get worse on a plane?
If you board a plane with an existing migraine attack or develop one mid-flight, the interior cabin environment of a plane can certainly make things worse.
Triggering lights, noises, smells, and pressure changes can quickly make a migraine go from moderate to severe.
Being proactive about treating your migraine can help you manage it.
Am I allowed to take migraine medication in my carry-on?
Yes. Per the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), all prescription and most over-the-counter drugs are allowed on airplanes.
The only restriction relates to liquid medications, which must follow the TSA’s 3-1-1 rule or be declared to the TSA officer for inspection as you go through the screening process.
Can I take other medications, like Dramamine or Xanax, with my migraine medication?
You should always check with your doctor about interactions between your migraine medications and other drugs commonly taken or prescribed for air travel.
Many types of drug interactions can occur with common migraine medications.
Because they fall into several different drug categories (antidepressants, beta-blockers, anti-epilepsy drugs, etc.), each combination needs to be considered case-by-case by a healthcare professional.
It can be daunting to get on a plane when you have migraine. Migraine is unpredictable, and air travel is rife with possible triggers.
But there are many ways to prevent and treat migraine during air travel. Be prepared to avoid triggers, have a plan of action for treating an episode, and take care of yourself before, during, and after flying.