Can Allergies Cause Migraines?

Statistics from the American Migraine Foundation suggest that around 39 million Americans experience migraines. In reality, the figure could be much higher due to undiagnosed cases. In this guide, we’ll explore one of the possible causes of migraines: allergies. Is it possible for allergies to cause migraine symptoms and how do you tell the difference between allergy headaches and other types of headaches?

Can allergies cause headaches or trigger migraines?

Research indicates that allergies can cause headaches and trigger migraines. Studies suggest that people who have allergies are more likely to experience migraines. If you have an allergy, you may also be more susceptible to recurrent migraines. 

The American Migraine Foundation found that migraines occur in 4% of people who do not suffer from allergies in comparison to 34% of people who have an allergy. Individuals who have migraines and allergies also experience migraines between 14% and 28% more frequently than people who have migraines in the absence of allergies. 

In the case of asthma and allergies combined, individuals who have less frequent migraines (fewer than 15 days per month) are 50% more likely to develop chronic migraines. 

How can allergies cause headaches?

Conditions like allergic rhinitis and asthma, which is more common in people who have allergies, can increase the risk of headaches and migraines. Studies show that allergies can cause headaches due to the following reasons:

  • Nasal congestion irritates the trigeminal nerve, which can cause symptoms of migraines
  • Interaction between allergens and mucosal membranes in the nose triggers an inflammatory response, which can result in migraines 
  • Allergy symptoms impact other aspects of health and well-being, which can trigger migraines, for example, sleep disturbances, stress, dehydration and hunger. This occurs due to changes in the body’s parasympathetic nerve system, which controls sleep and digestion. 
  • Excessive mucus production in the nasal cavity can increase pressure, causing sinus pain and headaches

What allergies can trigger migraines?

Common types of allergies that can trigger headaches and migraines include:

  • Hay fever/ allergic rhinitis: the most common seasonal allergy, hay fever (allergic rhinitis) is prevalent during the spring and summer months. Research conducted by the American Migraine Foundation showed that 67% of people who have migraines have symptoms of rhinitis. Examples include a runny nose, sneezing and an itchy nose. CDC figures indicate that between 7% and 8% of the adult population in the US has been diagnosed with hay fever. 
  • Food allergies: in some cases, specific foods can trigger migraine symptoms. Examples include chocolate, cheese and foods that contain additives. A study by researchers at Harvard University discovered that 50% of people who experience frequent migraines avoid certain foods. 

What does an allergy migraine feel like?

The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology suggests that allergies increase the risk of migraines and sinus headaches. If headaches are linked to allergies, symptoms include:

  • Pain and a feeling of increased pressure in the sinuses: this causes more intense pain in the forehead and underneath the eyes and cheekbones. Often, sinus pain feels worse when you move your head, for example, you tilt your face forward.
  • Facial aches and pains
  • Nausea
  • Throbbing pain in your head, which may be worse on one side
  • Nasal congestion, a runny nose and a drip from the nose

How do you know if it’s an allergy headache?

Allergy headaches are different from other types of headaches, including cluster headaches. They are linked to symptoms of allergies, including seasonal illnesses and food allergies. Most people who have allergy headaches and migraines experience more frequent and intense symptoms when exposed to triggers. If you have allergic rhinitis, for example, you are more likely to have headaches and migraines during peak hay fever season.

Symptoms differ between types of migraines and headaches. In the case of allergy headaches, symptoms include:

  • Increased nasal cavity congestion
  • Facial pain
  • Blocked sinuses

How to treat allergy headaches

If you are prone to allergy headaches, treatments often focus on preventing or reducing the severity of allergic reactions. Tackling and controlling allergies can help to decrease the intensity and frequency of headaches. Treatments that are used to address allergy symptoms include:

  • Antihistamines: antihistamines are a type of drug, which block histamine, a chemical, which is released by the body’s immune system in response to an allergen. It is important to note that antihistamines can reduce the impact of allergy symptoms but they won’t alleviate headaches once an individual has a migraine. 
  • Immunotherapy: immunotherapy is a treatment, which involves taking allergy shots. They are designed to introduce you to allergens in very small quantities to help you modify your immune response. Researchers at the University of Cincinnati found that immunotherapy shots contributed to a 52% reduction in the frequency of migraines . 

Self-help techniques can also help to prevent exposure to allergens and triggers. Examples include:

  • Stay indoors when pollen levels are high
  • Avoid certain foods if you have food allergies 
  • Vacuum your home frequently to eliminate dust and dander
  • Wash your hands after touching pets
  • Stay hydrated

There are also treatments and methods to ease headaches, including:

  • Analgesic medication
  • Avoid bright light and loud noises
  • Rest
  • Learn to spot and avoid triggers

When to see a doctor

Managing allergies is often possible by using medications, such as antihistamines, and avoiding exposure to triggers. If your symptoms are severe, treatments and self-help techniques aren’t working, or you’re prone to headaches and migraines that could be linked to your allergies, it’s important to see your doctor. 

Get help from an online doctor

If you have frequent headaches, or you’ve started to experience migraines, you can get help from an online doctor. It’s beneficial to seek advice as soon as possible so that you can access treatments and therapies. Online doctors will be able to offer advice based on your symptoms and medical history. 

Key takeaways

Allergies can cause headaches and trigger migraines. Studies suggest that people who have allergies are more likely to have migraines and they are more susceptible to frequent headaches. 

Most people who have allergy headaches experience more intense symptoms when exposed to allergens, for example, during hay fever season. Symptoms of allergy headaches include facial aches and pains, increased pressure in the sinuses, a runny nose, nasal congestion and throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head. 

Treating allergy symptoms often helps to reduce the risk of migraines. 

Sources:

DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.

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