A pounding headache can be the result of many everyday exposures and behaviors — or several of those things at once.
Headache and migraine are two of the most common neurological conditions in the world, but that doesn’t make coping with them any easier. People with migraine — a chronic disorder — can develop headaches and other symptoms in response to certain triggers in their environment, such as bright lights.
But people without migraine, or any other defined headache disorder, can still encounter triggers that cause headaches.
Sometimes, a headache can be a symptom of another health condition. A wide range of conditions can cause headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic — including dehydration, ear infections, dental problems, concussions, and hangovers. Headaches can also be caused by certain medications, food ingredients, or stimuli like a tight helmet or goggles.
Here are 11 common headache triggers worth knowing about, even if you don’t have a headache disorder. Keep in mind that the number or severity of triggers it takes to develop a headache will vary from person to person.
1. Allergies Can Cause Headaches in Some People
While seasonal and other airborne allergies are known for causing symptoms like a runny nose, sneezing, and itchy or teary eyes, they can also cause headaches. One way this commonly happens is that allergies cause swelling in your sinus cavities, leading to what’s known as a sinus headache, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. This happens when the openings to your sinus cavities get blocked, and pressure builds up.
Allergies can also act as a trigger for people with migraine. If you have migraine, an allergist may be able to help you figure out if allergies to foods or substances in your environment could be playing a role in your symptoms.
Common allergens that can trigger headaches include:
- Pollen and other outdoor allergens
- Dust mites
- Pet hair or dander
You can develop a sinus headache as an allergy symptom even if you have no other symptoms, the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology notes.
2. Dehydration Can Shrink Your Brain and Cause Pain
Dehydration that develops when you’re exposed to hot temperatures or cold, dry air can bring on a headache, according to the Cleveland Clinic. That’s because when you’re dehydrated, your brain shrinks and pulls away from your skull — putting pressure on nerves that can cause pain.
A dehydration headache usually develops along with other symptoms of dehydration, such as lightheadedness, excessive thirst, and a dry mouth. You may feel pain in just one spot or all over your head, and it’s usually a dull ache but can also be a sharp pain.
For most people who develop a headache as a result of dehydration, the headache goes away when they drink enough water, rest, and take pain relief medication. But if you experience signs of severe dehydration — such as confusion or dizziness — seek medical attention right away.
3. Nicotine in Cigarettes May Trigger Headaches
Smoking cigarettes — or even just the smell of cigarette smoke — can trigger symptoms in people with migraine, as described in a study of medical students in Spain published in The Journal of Headache and Pain. But nicotine in tobacco products — the substance that makes them addictive — can also cause headaches in people without migraine.
According to the National Headache Institute, the nicotine in cigarettes constricts the blood vessels in your brain, which leads to less blood flow to the brain and the surrounding tissues. At the same time, nicotine stimulates nerves that transmit pain signals. To make matters even worse, nicotine can interfere with the pain-relieving properties of medications commonly taken for headaches.
But if you’re a regular smoker, quitting smoking might not help prevent headaches right away. That’s because getting less nicotine than you’re used to can cause nicotine withdrawal and lead to headaches — along with other symptoms like insomnia and tobacco cravings. Physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can last for three to four weeks after you stop using tobacco, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
4. Headache Treatments Can Cause Medication-Overuse Headaches
People who have frequent headaches and treat them with pain relievers may develop medication-overuse headaches (sometimes called rebound headaches).
“If you use [migraine] rescue medication too frequently, it can lead to rebound,” says Roderick Spears, MD, a neurologist and associate professor of migraine research and clinical sciences at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (including aspirin, ibuprofen, and others), acetaminophen (Tylenol), triptans, ergots, and opioids have all been associated with this type of headache, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
For most stand-alone pain relievers, medication-overuse headaches can develop if you take them on more than 15 days in a month. But for triptans, ergots, opioids, and combination pain relievers (including those with caffeine), medication-overuse headaches can develop if you take them on more than 10 days in a month.
5. Too Much and Too Little Sleep Are Linked to Headaches
Not getting enough sleep and sleeping too much can both be headache triggers, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Irregular sleep and wake times can also increase your changes of a migraine attack, says Katherine Hamilton, MD, a neurologist and headache specialist at MedStar Health in Washington, DC.
Anything that gets you out of your normal routine can cause a headache, especially in people with migraine, because the “migraine brain” likes to be as steady and stable as possible, explains Dr. Hamilton.
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder that causes difficulty breathing during sleep and decreased flow of oxygen to the brain. It’s common for people with sleep apnea to wake up with a headache. Other symptoms of sleep apnea can include snoring, waking up frequently, or waking up with a very dry mouth.
If you have any of the symptoms of sleep apnea, it’s important talk to your healthcare provider and seek treatment if you have the condition. Sleep apnea is associated with a higher risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
6. Grinding Your Teeth Can Lead to Headaches
If you wake up with a dull and lingering headache — especially if you also have a sore jaw — your headache may be caused by grinding your teeth while you sleep. It’s normal to clench or even grind your teeth now and then, but if you frequently grind your teeth while awake or asleep — known as bruxism — you’re at risk for damage to your teeth and other symptoms like headaches.
Poor sleep and stress can cause teeth grinding, so behavioral changes and stress reduction techniques may help you avoid doing so while you sleep. You may also benefit from using a mouthguard, which can help protect your teeth and may help prevent headaches.
7. Headaches Are a Common Symptom of COVID-19, Colds, and the Flu
Headache is a common symptom of COVID-19, colds, and the flu, the result of your body’s inflammatory response to the virus causing the infection.
A headache caused by COVID-19 has often been described as intense pressure in the head that gets much worse when a person coughs or sneezes, says Dr. Spears.
If you have migraine and you develop a sinus infection as a consequence of an upper-respiratory infection, you’re more likely to get a migraine-like headache, Spears adds.
Getting vaccinated will help greatly reduce your chances of getting COVID-19 or the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While there are no vaccines for the more than 200 cold viruses (per the CDC), you may be able to avoid getting a cold by washing your hands frequently and avoiding people who have cold symptoms.
8. Caffeine: Poison or Antidote When It Comes to Headaches?
Caffeine in small amounts can actually be good for headache pain, and it is included in some headache medications. But if you get used to taking in lots of caffeine through coffee, tea, or soft drinks, you can get a caffeine withdrawal headache if you don’t get your daily dose, according to StatPearls. Avoid this headache trigger by gradually reducing your caffeine intake if you’re trying to cut back on or quit caffeine.
9. An Evening of Drinking Can End in Headache
For some people with migraine, alcohol can be a trigger, although the type of alcoholic beverage that triggers a migraine attack in one person may be different from the type that triggers an attack in another. Red wine and beer appear to be common triggers for many people. But with no hard and fast rules on which types of alcohol to avoid, you will need to rely on your personal experience to determine what, if anything, is safe for you to drink.
Drinking alcohol can also trigger a cluster headache if consumed during a cluster period.
Of course, drinking too much of any type of alcohol can result in a headache as part of the collection of symptoms known as a hangover. This type of headache is caused by dehydration, since alcohol acts as a diuretic that makes you lose fluids through urination. Consuming plenty of water or other nonalcoholic beverages along with alcohol can help you stay hydrated while you drink, and may also help you moderate your intake of alcohol.
10. Stress Can Trigger Tension-Type Headaches
Stress causes the release of brain chemicals that can affect blood vessels inside your head and bring on a tension-type headache — also known as a muscle contraction headache, because many people tend to tense up their neck muscles when under stress.
As many as 3 out of 4 people get tension headaches, which can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week, according to the American Migraine Foundation. You can help prevent these headaches by identifying common sources of stress and doing your best to avoid them. Stress-reduction techniques such as deep-breathing exercises or meditation may also be beneficial.
11. Could Your Sweet Tooth Be Triggering Headaches?
Chocolate has long been blamed for triggering migraine attacks, but most experts believe that blame to be misplaced. Instead, a craving for chocolate may be a sign of a migraine attack in its earliest stages.
Some people have reported headaches triggered by artificial sweeteners, but there’s not much in the way of scientific evidence about the prevalence or potential cause. Because triggers vary from person to person, if you suspect you might be sensitive to artificial sweeteners, try cutting them out of your diet to see what happens, says Migraine Again.
Another way that consuming sugar, or any refined carbohydrate, may cause headaches is through a condition known as reactive hypoglycemia. This happens when your body produces too much of the hormone insulin in response to your sugar or carbohydrate intake, causing your blood sugar to drop — typically about two hours but sometimes as long as four hours after eating, according to the Cleveland Clinic. In addition to a potential headache, typical symptoms include feeling a bit shaky, sweaty, or nauseated.
If you experience reactive hypoglycemia, cutting back on sugar and other refined carbohydrates — and eating more slowly digested carbohydrate foods instead — can help prevent this condition.
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