Can Smoking Trigger Migraines and Headaches?

Maybe you just spent an evening out with friends who can't get through an hour without lighting up. Or perhaps you're a regular smoker yourself. Either way, you're now trying to deal with a pounding headache that's got you holding your brow. Did all that smoke, you wonder, trigger the pain you're feeling?

Whether you smoke cigarettes, cigars, or pipes -- or hang around with people who do -- there's a chance that tobacco is the source of your headache woes. The chemicals in tobacco and the smell of the smoke are a big part of the problem. But if you take the right steps you can help keep some of your headaches at bay.

How does smoking and secondhand smoke cause headaches?

Nicotine. The substance nicotine is no longer linked to migraines. Nicotine is a chemical in tobacco products. It causes the blood vessels in your body to narrow. This reduces blood flow to your brain. Previous studies indicated that this reduced blood flow could trigger a migraine. However, migraines are complex, and reduced blood flow is no longer considered a migraine trigger. In addition, no controlled trials or studies have clearly linked nicotine to migraines, although people still report an association between headaches and tobacco (nicotine) exposure.

Nicotine can make it harder for you to get rid of your headache once it starts. That's because the chemical affects your liver's ability to break down headache medicine. The result is that the medication you're counting on to give you pain relief won't work as well, just when you need it the most.

Carbon monoxide. Like a lot of people, you may think of it as something that comes out of your car's tailpipe or leaks out of your furnace. But carbon monoxide is also in tobacco products. If you're a smoker, you may have high levels in your blood and brain. Carbon monoxide can trigger headaches.

Sensitivity to smells. For some people, the smell that smoking gives off is enough to cause a headache or migraine. You can also have an allergy to cigarette smoke, which can trigger a headache when you're around it.

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Can e-cigarettes also trigger headaches?

They can. Electronic cigarettes, also called e-cigarettes, contain nicotine. Research shows that they can also cause headaches.

Will quitting smoking stop headaches?

No. Depending on the type of headache, there may be an improvement in symptoms. But studies have not shown that stopping smoking will stop headaches.

It might be possible to prevent some of your headaches if you quit smoking or stay away from areas where other people are lighting up. For example, if you get cluster headaches, which causes sudden and severe pain around one eye or on one side of your head, you may notice improvement if you stop smoking.

Even with there not being a clear indication that stopping smoking will stop your headaches, it's important to talk to your doctor about ways to end smoking for good. But there's one thing to keep in mind when you start your quit-smoking efforts. Sometimes headaches are among the symptoms that crop up when you cut back on cigarettes. It's due to nicotine withdrawal.

These withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, are usually worse during the first week after you quit tobacco. But don't let that get in the way of your no-smoking campaign. The troubles will get better over time.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 08, 2019

Sources

Cleveland Clinic: "Smoking and Headache."

American Cancer Society: "Health Risks of Secondhand Smoke."

National Institute on Drug Abuse: "Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products."

PubMed Health: "Meningitis."

Michigan Headache & Neurological Institute: "Smoking Cessation."

Mount Sinai Hospital: "Headache Triggers and Tips."

Mayo Clinic: "Cluster Headache."

The Migraine Trust: "Cluster Headache."

National Cancer Institute: "How To Handle Withdrawal Symptoms and Triggers When You Decide To Quit Smoking."

UpToDate.com: "Pathophysiology, clinical manifestations, and diagnosis of migraine in adults."

National Institues of Health: "Tobacco, Nicotine, and Headache."

National Headache Foundation. 

Taylor, FR. Headache, Jul-Aug 2015.

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