The Link Between Allergies and Migraines

Migraine and sinus headaches are often confused -- and for good reason. They can share many symptoms, like a pounding head, intense sinus pressure, and stuffy nose. But if you have migraine headaches, you have an actual condition called migraine which results in migraine headaches.

True sinus headaches are quite rare. In fact, most people who think they’re having one are really having a migraine. And sometimes, allergies are the trigger.

How Do Allergies Cause Migraine Headaches?

The link is complex. Doctors are still trying to figure it out. So far, they know that your nervous system, endocrine (hormonal) system, and immune system all play a role.

If you get migraines, you have a sensitive nervous system. Your body tends to react very quickly, or overreact, to changes in your environment that it views as threats.

On top of that, exposure to allergens (things you’re allergic to) triggers your immune system to release certain chemicals. They can fuel inflammation throughout your body, all of which can set you up for a migraine.

If you’re prone to migraine headaches, your symptoms may be more severe during allergy season. Some people can also have “nonallergic” triggers like perfume, the smell of gasoline, cigarette smoke, and weather changes.

What Are the Symptoms?

If allergies trigger your migraine, you may have:

  • Pain in your sinuses (behind your cheekbones and forehead)
  • Facial pain
  • A throbbing or “stabbing” headache that’s often one-sided
  • Nausea

Your symptoms could be worse when you’re exposed to bright light. You may get more migraines in the spring, fall, and summer, when outdoor allergens are at their highest.

What’s the Treatment?

Getting your allergies under control may help you have fewer attacks.

Many different types of medicines can reduce allergy symptoms. Your doctor may have you try:

Antihistamines. Histamine is a chemical your body makes when you come into contact with an allergen. It has been linked to migraine. This type of drug will briefly stop your body from making histamine and should lessen your allergy symptoms. But it won’t be able to ease a migraine headache if one starts.

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Decongestants. These can help open stuffy nasal passages and ease sinus pressure.

Immunotherapy. Allergy shots can help cut back on migraine headaches. Plus, once you start taking them, any headaches you do have may be less severe. They expose your body to tiny amounts of the things you’re allergic to. They may be a good choice if you can’t avoid what you’re allergic to or medicines haven’t helped.

One allergy treatment you may need to avoid is steroid nasal sprays. They might bring on a migraine or make it worse.

What Else Can I Do?

Once you figure out what you’re allergic to, try to avoid it as much as you can.

Manage outside triggers:

  • Stay inside on windy days, when more allergens will be in the air. Mid-morning and early evening are also good times to avoid the great outdoors. That’s when pollen counts are highest.
  • Keep your house and car windows closed. Use air conditioning to cool and clean the air.
  • Ask another family member or friend to take care of your yard chores. Mowing, raking, and gardening can stir up pollen and mold.
  • Dry your clothes in a dryer. If they’re outside on a clothesline, they’ll trap allergens.

Control indoor allergens:

  • Keep your home free of dust. Clean with a wet mop instead of a broom.
  • Use special covers on your box springs, mattress, and pillows to keep out dust mites. Wash your bedding each week in hot water, then dry on high heat.

Avoid pet allergens:

  • Wash your hands after you touch any animal. If it lives in your home, keep it off your bed and out of your bedroom.
  • Keep as few carpets and rugs in your home as you can. Wood floors, tile, and linoleum collect far less dander, the flakes of dead skin that cause most pet allergies. Vacuum any carpet you do have often.

No matter what kind of allergies you have, you can also:

  • Drink plenty of fluids to keep your mucus thin. Water should be your first choice. Sip a cup of green tea each morning. It contains natural antihistamines, so it may give you some relief.
  • Rinse out your nasal passages. Some people find relief by using a saline spray in their nose a few times a day, but a sinus rinse or neti pot may help more. They can remove allergens from your nose while cleaning your nasal lining. Try this once a day, or twice if your allergy symptoms are severe.

 

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Stephen D. Silberstein, MD on July 17, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports: “Allergic Rhinitis and Chronic Daily Headaches: Is There a Link?”

American Migraine Foundation: “Sinus Headaches," “Sinus Headaches, Allergies, Asthma, and Migraine: More Than a Casual Relationship?”

Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Prevalence of migraine headaches in patients with allergic rhinitis.”

News Release, University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center.

American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Allergy Headaches.”

NHS Choices: “Sinusitis.”

Nemours KidsHealth: “Histamine.”

Headache: “Allergy and Immunotherapy: are they related to migraine headaches?” “Histamine in migraine and brain.”

National Headache Foundation: “Steroid Nasal Spray May Be Migraine Trigger.”

American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology: “Indoor Allergens,” “Outdoor Allergens.”

Swedish Covenant Hospital: “Five diet changes to reduce seasonal allergies.”

UpToDate: “Patient Education: Allergic Rhinitis (seasonal allergies) (Beyond the Basics).”

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