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Slideshow: Surprising Headache and Migraine Triggers

Headache Trigger: Your Boss

Yes, your boss really can give you a headache. Anything that boosts your stress level can make you more likely to get tension headaches or migraines.

The exact way stress leads to headaches isn't clear. The nerves in your brain that relay pain may become more sensitive when you're stressed. Changes within the brain itself may also be involved in migraine headaches.

Headache Trigger: Weather

When the weather changes, so does your chance of getting a migraine. Whether it's a heat wave or a cold snap, the change can trigger a headache in some people.

Sunny, hot days and high humidity are other common culprits. Rain, wind, or changes in barometric pressure may also lead to headaches. While you can't change the weather, you can wear sunglasses on a bright day, stay well hydrated, and avoid midday sun.

Headache Trigger: Strong Scents

Powerful smells -- even nice ones -- can set off migraines in many people. It's not clear why this happens, but the odors may stir up your nervous system. The most common triggers are paint, perfume, and certain types of flowers.

Headache Trigger: Hair Accessories

How you wear your hair can take a toll on your head. A tight ponytail may strain the tissue in your scalp, leading to a hairdo headache. Headbands, braids, and tight-fitting hats can have the same effect. If this is the cause of your headache, letting your hair down usually brings fast relief.

Headache Trigger: Exercise

Strenuous exercise, including jogging and sex, can sometimes lead to headaches.

These types of headaches are most common in people who get migraines.

Talk to your doctor if you do get headaches after activity, though, to make sure there isn't a more serious cause.

Headache Trigger: Poor Posture

You don't have to work up a sweat to build pressure in your head and neck muscles. Slouching at your desk will do the job, too.

You can improve your posture by making changes in your workspace. Use a chair with lower-back support.  Make sure your computer monitor is not too low or too high. Don't hunch your shoulders, and never cradle the phone between your ear and shoulder.

Headache Trigger: Cheese

A migraine trigger for some people is aged cheese, including blue cheese, cheddar, parmesan, and Swiss.

The cause may be a substance called tyramine. The longer a food ages, the more tyramine it has.

Headache Trigger: Red Wine

Tyramine, flavonoids, and other ingredients in red wine and other alcoholic drinks may contribute to headaches.

It's not clear exactly why drinking alcohol triggers a headache, but changes in the level of the chemical serotonin in the brain may be to blame.

Headache Trigger: Cold Cuts

Processed meats, such as cold cuts, have two strikes against them. They often contain tyramine and food additives such as nitrites, which may trigger headaches in some people.

Headache Trigger: Skipping Meals

Hunger headaches aren't always obvious. If you skip a meal, your head could start to ache before you realize you're hungry.

The trouble is likely a dip in your blood sugar. But don't try to cure a hunger headache with a candy bar. Sweets cause blood sugar to spike and then drop even lower.

Headache Trigger: Smoking

Smoking can lead to a headache -- and not just in the person holding the cigarette. Secondhand smoke has nicotine, which causes blood vessels in your brain to narrow.

Give up cigarettes or try to avoid secondhand smoke. This may be especially helpful if you get cluster headaches. These are extremely painful one-sided headaches that can also cause eye and nose symptoms.


Headache Trigger: Caffeine

Caffeine is both good and bad. In moderation, it may help treat some headaches. It's found in many headache medications. But chain-chugging coffee can sometimes cause the pain.

Also, if you're hooked on caffeine, cutting back abruptly may only make things worse. Caffeine withdrawal is another headache trigger.

Headache Solution: Identify Triggers

If you can figure out your most common triggers, you may be able to cut off headaches before they start. A headache diary is the best way to do this. Keep a daily log of foods you eat, stressful events, weather changes, and physical activity. Whenever you have a headache, record the time it starts and stops. This will help you find patterns, so you can try to avoid your triggers.

Headache Solution: Manage Stress

Many people manage migraines or tension headaches through stress-busting strategies. Although you can't control the stressful events that come your way, you can change the way you respond. You may need to experiment with techniques such as meditation and massage to find what works for you.

Headache Solution: Stretch Your Legs

Moderate exercise is a powerful stress reliever. Walking is a great choice, because it gives you an extra defense against tension headaches. When you walk, the swinging motion of your arms tends to relax the muscles in your neck and shoulders. Breaking up those knots may help fight the cause of some headaches.


Headache Solution: Eat Regular Meals

Eat balanced meals throughout the day. That will help keep your blood sugar on an even keel, which can put an end to hunger headaches.

Aim for meals and snacks that pair a protein with a complex carbohydrate, such as peanut butter on whole-grain bread or chicken breast with brown rice. Drink enough fluids, too. Dehydration is another common headache trigger.

For more surprising headache triggers, go to the next slide.

Headache Solution: Physical Therapy

This combines exercise and education to reduce pain and improve range of motion. If you get tension headaches, physical therapy may help relax your neck muscles and teach you to form new habits that lead to better posture.

Headache Solution: Medication

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen can help against many types of headaches. But avoid taking these drugs continuously, because it can lead to medication overuse headaches, or rebound headaches. The pain from this type of headache returns as soon as the pills have worn off.

For frequent or severe headaches, talk to your doctor about prescription medications that help prevent them. 

When to See a Doctor

Get checked by your doctor for any new headache that is unusually severe or lasts more than a couple of days. It's also important to let your doctor know if the pattern of your headaches changes -- for example, if they are more frequent or severe, or there are new triggers.

Get emergency medical care if you have a headache that comes with vision changes, trouble talking, movement problems, confusion, seizure, fever, or a stiff neck.

TOC All About Headaches

Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 18, 2014

Sources: Sources

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information: Disclaimer

© 2014 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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