Does it seem like you can always predict a headache on the horizon based on the weather forecast? You're definitely onto something. From thunderstorms to sunny days, weather changes can produce a barometric pressure headache or miserable migraine symptoms.
We spoke with Britany Klenofsky, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, to decipher the relationship between meteorological conditions and migraines, as well as ways to ward off weather-induced headaches.
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Can Weather Cause Headaches?
Short answer: Yes.
"Many patients, nearly half of mine, will report that changes in weather affect their headaches," Dr. Klenofsky says. "The literature also reports weather as a migraine trigger anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the time."
That's because people are affected by barometric pressure changes, light, temperature and humidity, Dr. Klenofsky says. Consequently, certain weather conditions that involve these variables — like rain, for example — can spark a headache. Here's how:
1. Barometric Pressure Changes
Variations in barometric (or air) pressure often occur during a storm when cold and warm air mix together. And these changes in barometric pressure — which alter the force (or weight) of the air — can disrupt the balance of fluid in your sinuses and lead to head pain, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
There are other theories about why changes in air pressure can lead to headaches. A November 2019 review in Current Pain and Headache Reports notes that other possibilities include vasoconstriction (or narrowing of the blood vessels) and hypoxia (low levels of oxygen in your tissues).
Whatever the exact cause, a drop in barometric pressure is a well-known migraine trigger, Dr. Klenofsky says. Indeed, a small December 2015 study in SpringerPlus found that small decreases in atmospheric pressure prompted headaches most frequently in people with migraines.
For some, the shift in temperature that can come with bad weather may also contribute to a so-called cold-weather headache, according to the Mayo Clinic.
2. Lightning Storms
"Lightning storms may also cause migraines in many patients, possibly through sferics," Dr. Klenofsky says. Generated by lightning, sferics are short-duration, low-intensity electromagnetic impulses that may trigger headache symptoms.
What's more, stormy days often come with higher temperatures that may put you at increased risk for dehydration. These are both additional risk factors for migraines, she says.
3. Heat and Sunlight
Not all headaches come from bad or cold weather: For others, migraines are more frequent on nice days. For instance, hot, sunny days can be problematic for people who get photosensitive migraines, Dr. Klenofsky says.
4. A Combination of Factors
It's important to note that while there seems to be a link between migraines, barometric pressure and sunlight, scientists still haven't found an indisputable correlate when it comes to weather, Dr. Klenofsky says.
"If you ask patients, they can have just as many headaches on bad-weather days as they do good-weather days," Dr. Klenofsky says. And this is reflected in the research: For example, studies find that people report migraines during both low- and high-barometric-pressure days (with no statistically significant link either way), she says.
But that doesn't necessarily mean there isn't a real connection between migraine headaches and weather, Dr. Klenofsky adds. Rather, it may indicate that migraines can be multifactorial. In other words, a variety of weather variables and triggers can produce migraines, and these factors differ from one person to another.
"We, as a scientific community, have yet to identify a concrete mechanism of migraine," Dr. Klenofsky says. "It may be that a lot of the brain and what it does continues to elude us, but it also very well may be that migraine can occur from a multitude of mechanisms."
Still not sure about the source of your headaches? Work with your doctor to try to determine the root cause or causes.
How to Prevent and Manage Headaches
While you can't control or circumvent climate and weather conditions, there are preventive measures you can take minimize headaches. Here, Dr. Klenofsky shares a few:
1. Keep a Journal
"Diary your headaches to see how many overall headache days you have," Dr. Klenofsky says. This will help you identify triggers (including weather) and strategize ways to avoid or limit your exposure to them.
2. Create a Prevention Strategy
Forming a prevention plan with your doctor is key. Your strategy should center around anticipating and alleviating triggers. That might involve increasing your hydration or temporarily using preventive medications, Dr. Klenofsky says.
Additionally, steer clear of migraine-activating foods, especially when there's rain or thunderstorms in the forecast, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Common offenders include:
- Yeast, like in bread
- Preservatives like nitrates and nitrites
3. Adopt Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Developing healthy lifestyle habits can be helpful for mitigating barometric pressure headaches (and other head pain, for that matter). For example, proper nutrition and regular exercise help build a strong immune system, which can stave off sickness (and accompanying headaches) when the weather shifts, Dr. Klenofsky says.
Similarly, keeping a consistent sleep schedule can reduce your migraine risk, as sleep deprivation has been linked to a higher incidence of headaches, per the Cleveland Clinic.
4. Develop an Action Plan
"Every patient should also have an action plan for when they get a headache," Dr. Klenofsky says.
Talk with your doctor about a treatment plan for when your prevention tactics break down and result in a breakthrough headache or migraine.
5. Wear Sunglasses
If bright sunlight is one of your migraine triggers, wearing polarized sunglasses outdoors can be helpful, per the Cleveland Clinic.
And because indoor blue light also appears to induce migraine and light sensitivity as well, you can also consider donning blue light-filtering eyewear while inside, per the American Migraine Foundation.
6. Don’t Over-Obsess
"Most importantly, while you should be aware of modifiable triggers, try to not get overwhelmed by them," Dr. Klenofsky says. In other words: Don't stress, because stress can trigger a migraine or make it worse. "We can't let the triggers control us, but we can modify our lifestyle with healthy routines."
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.