Understanding Why the Weather Affects Your Migraines

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA on March 9, 2016Written by Daniela Ginta on March 9, 2016

A migraine is characterized by intense throbbing or pulsing pain. This pain typically occurs on one or both sides of the head. Migraines can be accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound and can also involve nausea and vomiting.

Migraine Basics

Migraines affect approximately 29.5 million Americans. Most of these people are women between the ages of 20 and 45.  Although the condition isn’t life-threatening, having recurring migraines can disrupt your quality of life and possibly your work.

The two main types of migraines are the classic migraine, which is preceded by an aura, and the common or atypical migraine, which isn’t preceded by an aura. An aura includes seeing flashes of light, bright dots, or jagged lines. You may also have tunnel vision or blind spots. This usually occurs 30 minutes or so before the onset of a classic migraine.

You should keep a journal related to your experience with migraines. In addition to noting the frequency and severity of your migraines, you should note any lifestyle or environmental conditions. This includes food you may have eaten, stress you may be under, or impending weather.

Keeping a journal can help you and your doctor pinpoint your triggers and design a treatment program to ease your symptoms. Migraines can run in families, so you should keep your family members’ possible experiences in mind as well.

As you monitor the occurrence of your migraines, you may notice symptoms that occur before your migraine starts. These can include:

  • irritability
  • hyperactivity
  • neck stiffness
  • food cravings
  • depression

A migraine can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Aside from pain, nausea, and overall sensitivity, a migraine can often make you feel lightheaded and in great need of a dark, quiet corner to rest in.

What Triggers Migraines?

The exact causes of migraines aren’t understood. There are many triggers. Hormones, especially ones that are estrogen-related are a known trigger. Three out of four people affected by migraines are women.

Some other commonly known triggers include:

  • hormone-based medications
  • vasodilators
  • food additives, such as aspartame and monosodium glutamate
  • certain compounds found in cured meats and aged cheeses
  • changes in the usual daily rhythms, such as working different hours
  • jetlag
  • weather changes due to varying atmospheric pressure, bright sunlight, or changes in temperature
  • physical stress
  • psychological stress
  • exposure to strong sensory stimuli, such as loud sounds, strong smells, and light

How Can Weather Affect Your Migraines?

There isn’t any doubt that weather changes can trigger migraines. Although the exact mechanism is still the subject of research, an article in The Journal of Headache and Pain says that people who are sensitive to changes in temperature have a higher incidence of migraines when the weather becomes cold.

Other weather triggers may include high humidity, strong winds, and variations in atmospheric pressure. These usually indicate stormy weather is coming, but bright sunlight can also trigger migraines, according to a study published in European Neurology.

The authors point to both temperature and bright sunlight as possible triggers in some people with migraines. Others seem to be affected only by the latter. It’s worth noting that warm temperature on its own isn’t considered to be enough to trigger an attack.

People who wore hats and sunglasses and chose shade had a lower frequency of headaches, as long as the time spent in the sun was relatively short. Proper managing of pre-exposure conditions may help prevent the onset of migraine headaches triggered by changes in weather.

Ways to Reduce the Frequency of Your Migraines

If you’re prone to migraines that are triggered by changes in weather, you likely won’t be able to avoid them completely. After all, you can’t control the weather. Still, following these lifestyle tips can make life more manageable and hopefully reduce the frequency of attacks:

  • Avoid being in the sun for long periods of time even when wearing protection.
  • Have a regular bedtime and waking routine.
  • Drink adequate amounts of water to avoid dehydration.
  • Avoid skipping meals to prevent drops in blood sugar.
  • Avoid drinking too much coffee or soft drinks that contain caffeine, chocolate or tea, especially when the weather forecast predicts changes.
  • If it’s possible, avoid alcohol, especially when you have to be outside for a while.
  • Exercise helps you manage stress, but don’t overdo it. If you’re sensitive to temperature, take special precautions when the weather is changing.
  • Avoid exercising in bright midday sun or when it’s windy.
  • Keep your prescribed preventive migraine medicine handy, especially when there are weather changes ahead.

The Takeaway

Although many people with migraines manage pain on their own, it’s important to know your options. Your doctor may also prescribe pain-relieving medication and preventive medication, depending on the severity and frequency of your migraines.

Your doctor can also make recommendations for changing your living or working conditions if they prove to be a constant trigger. They may also recommend alternative lifestyle treatments including relaxation and stress-managing therapies. 

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