Could Allergies Be Giving You Migraines?

Just when you thought the insult of seasonal allergies was enough, along come migraines triggered by those allergies. Find some relief here.

By Fiorella Valdesolo
dandelion in the wind


Why allergies can trigger migraines

The seasonal shift from winter to spring is a welcome one for many reasons, chief among them weather that doesn’t require tights and all manner of woolen accessories. Far less thrilling is the surge of allergies tipped off by the increased pollen count, the manic weather pattern (It’s raining! It’s cold! It’s humid!), and the ever-shifting barometric pressure. And for many those spring allergies are accompanied by something that can be far more of an issue: migraines. “Changes in humidity, temperature and air pressure are some of the most common migraine triggers and also the hardest to control,” says California-based neurologist Dr. Mitchell Brin. “Histamine (what your body releases while experiencing allergies) may play a key role in triggering migraines by means of vasodilation and inflammation in the pathogenesis of migraine headaches.” Not only are migraines more common in people with seasonal allergies, explains Dr. Sara Crystal, a neurologist, headache specialist, and medical advisor for Cove, a new direct-to-consumer platform specifically for migraine sufferers, but having allergies predisposes one to more frequent headaches. And women happen to be disproportionately affected: according to one study, women are three times more likely than men to suffer from migraines. “The specific mechanism of how estrogen affects migraines is not completely understood, but we do know that estrogen influences not only the susceptibility to migraine, but also the processing and perception of pain,” says Crystal.

How to determine what kind of headache sufferer you are

So, what to do? First, make sure that you’ve properly distinguished between a tension headache and a migraine. “Tension headaches are mild to moderate headaches, typically described as pressure or band-like in quality that occur on both sides of the head and may be accompanied by light or sound sensitivity, but not nausea or vomiting,” says Crystal. “Migraines are typically on one side of the head, and are more severe, longer-lasting, and more disabling than tension headaches, and may be accompanied by light and sound sensitivity, nausea or vomiting.” If your migraine frequency is more than 15 headache days per month, then you are considered a chronic migraine sufferer.

The latest treatments for migraineurs

While, for season allergy sufferers, spring can be cause for migraine flare-ups, there are a number of other triggers like stress, changes in sleep, overuse of caffeine, alcohol or certain foods (some frequent offenders: chocolate, MSG, nitrates, aged cheeses). But triggers are entirely individual and mostly predetermined by genetics; so just as there is no one cause, there is also no one-size-fits-all treatment. Says Crystal, depending on frequency and severity there are two ways of treating them: preventative medication and immediate pain relief or acute medication, which should be taken at the onset of pain. “Many of the medications used for migraine prevention were actually developed for other medical conditions,” she adds. Those include blood pressure lowering meds like beta blockers; antidepressants; and anti-seizure medications like gabapentin and topiramate. There is also wrinkle smoother par excellence, Botox, which is administered as injections to the forehead, temples, and back of the head and shoulders. “It’s approved to prevent headaches in adults with chronic migraine who have 15 or more headache days each month with headaches lasting four hours a day or longer,” adds Brin. In 2018, an exciting new class of medications (Aimovig is one) was also released specifically for migraine prevention. “These are monthly injections that prevent headaches by targeting CGRP (calcitonin gene-related peptide), and have been very effective for many patients,” explains Crystal. If allergies are your main migraine trigger, treating the former may help reduce the frequency of the latter. “One study found that immunotherapy for allergies (i.e., ‘allergy shots’) decreased the frequency and disability of migraines in younger patients,” adds Crystal. There are also a number of supplements and lifestyle tweaks that can help curb migraine frequency: supplements like magnesium and coenzyme Q10, aerobic exercise, acupuncture, meditation and biofeedback. 

When a migraine has already set in, Crystal suggests that her patients apply cold or heat (go by your personal preference) and zone out—and, if possible, pass out—in a room that is dark and quiet. “Essential oils like lavender, peppermint and rosemary, are also an option as they may relieve headaches by blocking pain transmission, desensitizing pain fibers, and reducing inflammation,” says Crystal. “I also recommend to my patients take a medication such as Triptan at the first sign of a migraine and to also use an anti-nausea medication if needed.”

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