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The Link Between Migraine and Dehydration

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on February 22, 2022

You may already know stress, weather, alcohol, and certain smells and foods can be potential triggers for your migraines. But did you know dehydration can be a culprit, too? The American Migraine Foundation says about one-third of people with migraine say lack of fluid intake or being dehydrated can set one off.

Even people who don’t get migraines can develop dehydration headaches when they don’t get enough fluids. These headaches may not feel as intense as a migraine but can still be uncomfortable.

The truth is, dehydration and head pain can go hand and hand. And if you’re someone who gets migraines, you’ll want to make sure to prevent this common trigger.

How Does Dehydration Trigger a Migraine?

Your body needs a certain amount of electrolytes (minerals that regulate body functions) as well as fluids to work its best. You need to replace minerals like potassium and sodium throughout the day as your body loses fluids through sweat and peeing. Normally you eat and drink to get these minerals.

When you don’t replace these fluids and electrolytes, dehydration can set in and cause a migraine. Studies show you could also become irritable and have problems concentrating. You can make your migraine last longer the longer you go without drinking fluids.

It’s also important to remember that even mild dehydration can be a migraine trigger. Some factors that can cause dehydration, aside from not drinking enough fluids, include:

You may also be at a higher risk for dehydration if:

  • You’re in a high altitude
  • Are elderly or a young child
  • Have a chronic illness like diabetes
  • You take medication that increases urination
  • You exercise strenuously, especially outdoors in hot climates

Symptoms of Dehydration

When you’re mildly dehydrated, you may only have a few symptoms. You may feel:

  • Thirsty
  • Tired
  • Sluggish

By the time you feel thirsty, you may already be mildly dehydrated.

If dehydration goes on longer, other symptoms you may develop include:

Moderate to severe dehydration is a medical emergency. Seek immediate medical help if you have any of the above symptoms.

What Do Dehydration-Triggered Migraines Feel Like?

Migraines triggered by a lack of fluids can come with very specific symptoms for some people. Many people describe them as “hangover headaches.” The pain may be pulsing.

As with most migraines, bright lights can make them worse, and bending over or moving your head around also increases pain. You may feel pain on one side only, in the back, front, or all over your head.

How to Prevent or Cure a Dehydration-Triggered Migraine

The National Headache Foundation says the best option is to prevent the dehydration that may cause a migraine. You can also try electrolyte solutions formulated with electrolytes and glucose designed for rapid rehydration, like sports drinks to help prevent dehydration. These are best after you overheat or exercise heavily.

Other things you can do:

  • Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol, which increase urination and can cause dehydration
  • Hydrate more after exercise or in hot weather
  • Eat fluid-rich foods
  • Suck on ice cubes
  • Try a sports drink
  • Reduce physical activity in hot weather or during a migraine
  • Rest
  • Try an OTC pain reliever or your prescription migraine medication if you feel a migraine coming on

How Much Should You Drink to Stay Hydrated?

Most people should drink about eight glasses of water per day (about 2 liters). That’s on top of other beverages like juice and skim milk. You should also eat foods that contain plenty of water, such as:

Good sources of water-rich fruits and veggies include:

  • Watermelon
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Cauliflower
  • Cucumbers
  • Oranges
  • Zucchini
  • Lettuce

If you already have a migraine and think mild dehydration could be the trigger, drink fluids to see if you can ease the pain of the headache and reduce the length of your migraine.

A study in the journal Nutrition Reviews found people suffering from a dehydration-triggered migraine had relief within 30 minutes after drinking fluids.

Keeping track of your migraines with a headache journal can also be a helpful way to discover if dehydration could play a role in your migraines. Jot down things like what you eat, drink, and activities so you can note patterns surrounding your migraine attacks.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

The American Migraine Foundation: “Top 10 Migraine Triggers and How to Deal with Them.”

Nutrition Reviews: “Water, Hydration and Health.”

The National Headache Foundation: “Headaches and Dehydration.”

Current Pain and Headache Reports: “Dehydration and Headache.”

Migraine Trust: “Migraine Attack Triggers.”

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