Neurology and Neurosurgery

4 ways to manage migraine during the holidays

Young sister and brother making Christmas gingerbread cookies with their mother.


Migraine sufferers may have more exposure to triggers during the holidays.


By Hida Nierenburg, MD, Neurology and Headache Medicine, Nuvance Health


The holidays are a special time of year when many people celebrate family, friends and traditions. During this time, it is common for people to experience changes to their diet, exercise and sleep routines, and stress related to holiday gatherings, shopping and travel. These changes may trigger migraine for people who experience this neurological disorder that can cause severe head pain along with other debilitating symptoms.


If you or someone you know has a history of migraine, you know how frustrating it can be to miss a holiday activity because of it. Here are four ways to manage migraine during the holidays.



1. Identify and manage migraine triggers.


You may have more exposure to the following common migraine triggers during the holidays. 


Migraine triggers: alcoholic and caffeinated beverages


Alcohol and caffeine can trigger migraine because of how they affect the chemicals in the brain and body. Alcoholic and caffeinated beverages can also cause dehydration, which is a common migraine trigger.


Some people may find they drink more alcoholic beverages than usual during holiday events. Some people may also consume more caffeinated beverages if they are getting less sleep due to hosting, holiday shopping or traveling.



How to manage it: Enjoy alcoholic or caffeinated beverages in moderation and balance these types of beverages with water. At least 64 ounces of water per day is recommended.


Migraine triggers: bright lights, loud noises and strong smells


Most people enjoy concerts, scents of the season such as cinnamon and pine, and twinkling lights during the holidays. These festivities can trigger migraines for some people. 


How to manage it: Avoid bright lights, loud noises and strong scents in your own home. If you encounter these triggers outside your home, limit your exposure and have a rescue migraine medication on hand just in case you need it. There are also special glasses to minimize the irritation from lights if you wish to enjoy these types of displays.


Migraine triggers: certain types of foods


Foods that may trigger migraine vary and depend on the individual. We need more research to determine how and why some foods may trigger migraine. We think chemicals in certain types of alcohol (red wine) and food (chocolate and processed cheeses and meats) may trigger migraine.


How to manage it: It is important to identify what foods may trigger your migraine. While not everyone has food triggers, being aware of potential food triggers can help with avoiding foods that may cause a migraine. If you are aware of a particular food trigger, speak with the host of a holiday event to find out what foods they will serve so you know what you can eat there, or if you should eat beforehand.


Hunger can also trigger migraines. Consume regular meals and snacks in between rather than fasting until a holiday dinner.



Migraine trigger: irregular sleep patterns


Not getting enough or quality sleep may trigger migraine. Sleep is important for maintaining a healthy immune system, and not getting enough sleep can make us irritable and more prone to stress.


How to manage it: Plan how to participate in holiday activities while still getting ample sleep. Make a list of tasks for each day versus trying to fit everything into one day. Aim to go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day. Most adults should aim to get about seven to eight hours of sleep per night.


Migraine trigger: stress


Migraines can happen when someone’s brain is very sensitive to deviations in routine. Changes to a routine can cause stress, and in turn, migraine.


How to manage it: Planning can help you manage potentially stressful situations during the holidays. For example:


  • Plan shopping to avoid last-minute gift-giving stress.

  • If you know certain activities like family gatherings or travel will cause you anxiety, plan a strategy for managing stress, such as scheduling personal time to exercise, meditate, do something that brings you joy or simply relax.



2. Recognize migraine symptoms early to start treatment sooner.


Recognizing symptoms early and starting treatment quickly can reduce how long migraine and its associated disability lasts. Symptoms may vary but commonly include:


  • An intense headache that worsens from regular activities, such as cooking, spending time with family or working

  • Dizziness

  • Fatigue

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Sensitivity to light, sound or smells (migraine causes at least one of these symptoms)

  • Tingling and numbness

  • Visual disturbances



3. Find the right kind of treatment for you.


Individuals may experience migraine differently and benefit from preventive, rescue or both kinds of migraine treatment. A headache specialist can help find the right kind of treatment for you.


The good news is there are a variety of migraine treatments ranging from oral and intravenous medicines, injections and wearable devices. Alternative treatments such as acupuncture and massage can also be helpful.


Avoiding potential migraine triggers can be quite challenging. You and your doctor may consider preventive treatment to help you enjoy activities without the disability and worry associated with migraine.


If a migraine strikes, having a proper rescue medication readily available can help to reduce the duration and intensity of it.


It is also important to know which interventions will help reduce migraine symptoms, such as staying in a dark, quiet room.



4. Know when to see a headache specialist.


Mostly everyone gets headaches that improve on their own or with over-the-counter medication. See a headache specialist if you have:


  • Headaches often

  • Headaches that last for more than two days

  • Severe head pain that disrupts your life

  • Other neurological symptoms in addition to head pain


Untreated acute migraines can progress to chronic migraine. You may have chronic migraine if you have more than 15 headache days per month for three consecutive months, with migraine attacks on eight of those days.


Many types of headaches have different treatments. A headache specialist can accurately diagnose you and recommend an effective treatment.



The bottom line: There are ways to manage migraine so you can enjoy the holidays. Recognizing and managing triggers, planning holiday activities, finding the right treatment and seeing a headache specialist are ways you can reduce migraine days this holiday season.