The 11 Most Common Headache and Migraine Triggers and How to Deal With Them

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A pounding headache can be the result of many everyday things — or several of those things at once. Headache and migraine are two of the most common neurological diseases in the world, but that doesn’t make coping with them any easier.

Not only are severe headaches and migraine attacks painful and disruptive, but knowing you might get one can also mean constantly dreading the onset of the next attack.

But although a headache or migraine attack can strike without warning, there are often triggers that can make one more likely, and knowing what can set off a migraine attack or headache for you may keep you from going to a dark place — both literally and figuratively.

Here are 11 common migraine and headache triggers worth knowing about. Keep in mind that it often takes multiple triggers to set off a migraine attack.

Weather Changes Can Create a ‘Perfect Storm’ That Triggers Migraine

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More than one-third of people with migraine report that weather fluctuations can trigger an attack, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

Barometric pressure headaches can be triggered by changes in the weather. A study published in 2017 in Oral Rehabilitation found an association between atmospheric pressure and the amount of migraine pain a person experienced.

Dehydration caused by hot and humid temperatures or cold, dry air can also bring on a headache, according to the American Migraine Foundation. You can’t avoid the weather, but if you know that a big change is coming, you might take care to avoid other migraine or headache triggers.

Bright Lights, Big Headache?

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Some people who have migraine or headaches can have a condition called photophobia, which is abnormal or extreme sensitivity to light, according to the American Migraine Foundation. It’s so common in migraine that it’s actually one of the diagnostic criteria.

Bright fluorescent lights, flickering lights, and even very bright natural sunlight can all trigger a migraine attack in people who have photophobia. However, sensitivity to light can also be a premonitory symptom, or a sign that a migraine attack has already started.

If light is in fact a trigger for you, gradually increasing your tolerance to light may reduce headaches and migraine attacks brought on by photophobia.

Cigarettes, or Just Cigarette Smoke, May Trigger Headache and Migraine

green ashtray

For some people, the smell of tobacco smoke can be a migraine trigger. For others, smoking cigarettes is thought to trigger migraine attacks, as described in a study of medical students in Spain published in The Journal of Headache and Pain.

What’s the connection between smoking and headaches? According to the National Headache Institute, the nicotine in cigarettes is the main cause, because it constricts the blood vessels in your brain, which leads to less blood flow to the brain and the surrounding tissues, which in turn can cause a migraine attack or directly cause head pain.

E-cigarettes, used for vaping, also contain nicotine and can also cause headaches. And stopping either smoking or vaping can lead to headaches caused by nicotine withdrawal.

This one has an easy fix: Don’t smoke, and do your best to stay away from smokers.

Headache and Migraine Treatments Can Cause Medication Overuse Headaches

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People who have frequent headaches and treat them with acute medications may develop medication overuse headaches (sometimes called rebound headaches).

“If you use rescue medication too frequently, it can lead to rebound,” says Roderick Spears, MD, a neurologist and headache specialist at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia.

Medications such as aspirin, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen (Tylenol), triptans, ergots, and opioids have all been associated with this type of headache, according to the American Migraine Foundation.

It’s recommended that people don’t take these medications for acute treatment of migraine more than two days a week. If you’re finding that you need headache or migraine treatments this frequently, speak to your doctor about alternatives to these drugs.

The newer class of drugs for the acute treatment of migraine called CGRP receptor antagonists, or “gepants,” has not been found to lead to medication overuse headaches with frequent use.

Hormone Changes Caused by Your Monthly Period Can Mean Migraine Attacks


About 3 out of 5 women with migraine have attacks that are related to their menstrual cycle, according to the National Headache Foundation. These headaches can happen along with premenstrual syndrome (PMS) during or immediately after your period.

The cause of PMS headache pain may be changes in the levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.

Ask your doctor about strategies to prevent menstrual and menstrually related migraine and headaches — headache pain may be reduced in some women when birth control pills are taken.

RELATED: 7 Top Remedies for Menstrual Migraine

Too Much and Too Little Sleep Linked to Headaches

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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, an assistant professor of clinical neurology and a headache specialist at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia.

Anything that gets you out of your normal routine can cause a headache, 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; The condition is associated with a higher risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Headaches Are a Common Symptom of COVID-19, Colds, and the Flu

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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 cold or flu infection.

A headache caused by COVID-19 has 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, says Spears.

Getting vaccinated will help greatly reduce your chances of getting the coronavirus 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, you may be able to avoid many colds by washing your hands frequently and avoiding people who have cold symptoms.

Caffeine: Poison or Antidote When It Comes to Headaches?

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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.

Evenings That Begin With Wine and Cheese Can End in Headache

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For some people, alcohol can be a migraine trigger, although the type of alcohol 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.

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.

Keep in mind, too, that triggers tend to be additive, so you may find that alcohol triggers a migraine attack primarily when you’re stressed, premenstrual, or have had inadequate sleep. This is where keeping a migraine diary can help you sort out what your triggers really are.

Of course, drinking too much of any type of alcohol can result in the type of headache known as a hangover. 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.

And what about the cheese that you may enjoy along with your drink?

Some people find that aged cheeses such as Parmesan or cheddar are migraine triggers. Processed meats, such as salami, summer sausage, and lunch meats, can also trigger headaches or migraine attacks for some.

10 Stress Can Trigger Tension-Type Headache

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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 that can last anywhere from 30 minutes to seven days, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Avoid these headaches by identifying your common sources of stress and doing your best to avoid them. You can also learn stress-reduction techniques such as deep-breathing exercises or meditation.

11 Could Your Sweet Tooth Be Triggering a Migraine Attack?

artificial sweetener

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.

Additional reporting by Becky Upham.

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Photo by Carolina Heza on Unsplash

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