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Have you noticed a link between your migraine attacks and weather events like storms? Wondering if seasonal allergies can trigger migraine or headaches? Learn what to expect with environmental triggers and how to best manage them (since you can't change the weather).

Is Weather a Migraine Trigger?

Weather change can be an environmental migraine trigger for some people. Many patients actually describe themselves as a human barometer as they can tell when the weather is changing because it will trigger a migraine attack.

There have been studies conducted showing that certain weather conditions — wind conditions, in particular — are associated with an increased frequency of attacks in people with migraine. In Southern California, for example, the Santa Ana wind conditions are ones that seem to be associated with migraine, based on empirical experience.

While there is some actual evidence documenting weather triggers, there is not as much as there might be given how commonly people report weather as a trigger.

What Kind of Weather Triggers Migraine?

For some people, it's the heat or the temperature. It seems most likely, though, that barometric pressure changes are triggering attacks. This makes sense because other changes in barometric pressure, like going to a place of higher altitude or traveling in an airplane, are also associated with an increased risk of migraine attacks.

That's not to say that temperature is not an environmental migraine trigger. It is still likely, though, that most weather-triggered attacks are caused by barometric pressure changes — the operative word being change. It is during times of transition in weather that people seem to be at increased risk of an attack.

One study, conducted by Vincent Martin, MD, the director of the Headache and Facial Pain Center at the University of Cincinnati Gardner Neuroscience Institute, suggests that when weather conditions include lightning they are associated with an increased frequency of migraine attacks.

How Do I Manage Weather-Related Triggers?

Instances of extreme weather or fluctuations in weather might be times to be on alert to treat early if an attack occurs. If you can identify when your risk of getting an attack is heightened, then you can either treat earlier acutely or be mindful of lifestyle factors — like consistent sleep, eating regularly, exercising, and staying hydrated — that can protect you from an attack.

The other side of this is that you don't want to obsess over environmental triggers. You have to live your life. There is a fine line between being aware of triggers in order to intervene earlier and worrying about triggers that you cannot control, like the weather. Focus on the factors you can control such as sleep, hydration, healthy meals, and stress management.

Can Allergies Trigger Migraine Attacks?

Interestingly, as much focus as there is on trying to identify seasonal allergies as an environmental or outdoor trigger, the evidence linking allergies and migraine is really not strong at all. Actually, the same goes for food allergies.

Allergists and immunologists will try and tell you that treating allergies might help with migraine, but rarely is that the case. People who have bad seasonal allergy symptoms rarely find an association between that period of time and their migraine attack frequency.

Seasonal allergies can cause allergic rhinitis, or sinus inflammation, which can trigger a sinus headache. It is not uncommon for people to mistake their sinus headache or allergy symptoms with migraine. Both sinus headaches and migraine attacks can bring pain in the same region on the face and head. Additionally, during a migraine attack, people may experience eye tearing, eye redness, nasal congestion, and even clear nasal drainage, which are also allergy symptoms and sinusitis symptoms.

It is important to get the right diagnosis so you can get the right treatment. Some of the medications for sinus headaches can actually make migraine worse, like decongestants. If your headache comes with symptoms like light or noise sensitivity, nausea or vomiting, neck pain, or other common migraine symptoms, then your headache is likely a migraine attack and not an allergy headache.

All that being said, it is possible to have both migraine and allergies. The inflammation in the sinuses (also known as allergic rhinitis) caused by an allergen can trigger a migraine attack in someone who is genetically susceptible to migraine.

Can Altitude or Air Travel Trigger a Migraine?

Both altitude and air travel are associated with migraine. What many people perceive as altitude sickness is probably actually a migraine attack being triggered by high altitude, rather than a different phenomenon. Typically, people are at risk during the first two or three days of travel to high altitude, then the body adjusts. It's not necessarily true that living at high altitude would be a bad thing, but it is wise to be on alert during times of transition to a different altitude.

There are specific acute things you can do for air travel and high altitude to reduce the risk of getting an attack. Discuss altitude and air travel as a trigger with your healthcare professional to devise a rescue or mini-preventive plan. This may include a triptan, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), or other medications.

Are Bright Lights or Visual Patterns Migraine Triggers?

It's quite clear that migraine patients can have increased visual discomfort even between attacks where they perceive certain patterns of light, like stripes or zigzag lines, as uncomfortable. There are reports of specific visual stimuli triggering migraine attacks, but there just isn't any definitive evidence that there's a consistent pattern.

Visual discomfort, however, is a sign that an attack has already started. It's not uncommon for people to perceive light as bright before the headache begins. What they think of as an environmental trigger, namely bright light, may just be them perceiving the light as bright when the attack has already started.

The challenge with things like light is: How much of it is really a trigger versus a sensitivity that's part of the prodrome or premonitory stage? Especially if they are in a state of chronic migraine they're going to perceive light as uncomfortable simply because they have chronic migraine, and that might not necessarily mean that it's actually a trigger of attacks.

Sensory sensitivity is a definitive symptom of migraine that is often mistaken as a trigger. Sounds, light, and smell are all perceived by patients as triggers, but they could just be uncomfortable when people are either having frequent migraine symptoms between attacks or they're at the very beginning of an attack before a headache begins.

Final Thoughts

Spring brings warmer weather, vacation time — and outdoor allergens. People with migraine can be sensitive to environmental triggers like weather changes and air travel. The link between allergies and migraine attacks, on the other hand, is a little less clear.

In many cases, allergy headaches are actually migraine attacks, but it is possible to have both seasonal allergies and migraine. For those folks, allergy symptoms like inflamed sinuses can trigger a migraine attack. Allergies are thus a migraine trigger, but allergies do not cause migraine. Migraine is a condition of the nervous system that is caused by genetics.

Understanding environmental migraine triggers and how they affect you — or don't affect you — can help you enjoy the outdoors. Having a treatment plan in place helps minimize some of the anxiety that comes with living with this condition. A treatment plan helps you know when to utilize your acute therapies or migraine medications so you know what to do when/if the outdoors triggers a migraine attack.

This article was edited by Angie Glaser and Elizabeth DeStefano, based on an interview with Rebecca Brook NP, and was updated by Angie Glaser. Paula K. Dumas also contributed to the content, reviewed by Drs. Starling, Charles, and Baity.