Research shows a link between allergies and migraines, which could mean more headaches during peak allergy seasons
By Hida Nierenburg, MD, Neurology and Headache Medicine, Nuvance Health
Many things can trigger migraine attacks from certain foods, stress and sleep deprivation. If you get these intense headaches, it can help to identify your triggers and then avoid or manage them to reduce migraine days. If you get migraines more frequently during peak allergy seasons, you are not alone! Some people report worsening headache symptoms in the fall from ragweed pollen and in the spring from tree pollen.
Research shows a link between migraine, allergies and asthma, which may lead to an increased frequency of migraine attacks during peak allergy seasons. Here is what you need to know about the link between seasonal allergies and migraines so you can have fewer headache days.
What is the link between migraines and allergies?
According to the American Migraine Foundation, one study found that migraines occurred in 34% of people who have allergies, compared to 4% of people who do not have allergies. Asthma is also more common in people who get migraines compared to people who do not.
Additional research showed that migraines occurred 14% to 28% more frequently in those with migraines and allergies than in those with migraines alone. Allergies and asthma also cause people with episodic migraines (occurring fewer than 15 days a month) to be more than twice as likely to develop chronic migraines (occurring more than 15 days per month). Another study showed that there is an increased risk of migraine in children with asthma.
Why allergies may increase migraine frequency
There are several ways that allergies and asthma could contribute to an increase in migraine frequency, including:
- Increased inflammation: Allergic rhinitis happens when exposure to allergens (substances that trigger allergies) causes runny nose, congestion and post-nasal drip. Common allergens are cat and dog hair, dust, grass and pollen, among others. Allergies and asthma cause inflammation that could increase migraine frequency. This occurs by the activation of cells close to the outer layer of the brain and trigeminal nerve, which is the main “pain generator” for migraine headaches.
- Increased nasal congestion: Nasal congestion caused by seasonal allergies can irritate the trigeminal nerve in the nose, which could trigger migraine headaches and associated symptoms.
- Sleep disturbances: Sinus pressure, nasal congestion and trouble breathing through the nose may cause a lack of quality sleep, a known migraine trigger for some people.
- Parasympathetic nerve involvement: Allergy and asthma flare-ups activate nerves in the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s digestion and rest response when the body is eating or drinking, relaxing or resting. Dehydration, hunger, fatigue and stress are migraine triggers for some people.
Related content: What are the types of migraine?
How to manage allergies and migraine
Managing an increase in migraine frequency related to seasonal allergies usually starts with treating allergy symptoms. Allergy medications or steroid nasal sprays may effectively manage allergies and therefore reduce migraine frequency if allergies are a trigger. However, we need more evidence-based research about the effect allergy medications have on decreasing migraine frequency.
Early research shows that allergy shots, also called allergy immunotherapy, were associated with a 52% reduction in the frequency of migraines in younger people. However, this study had some limitations and we need additional research to determine the effect of allergy shots on migraine.
In addition to managing seasonal allergies, be prepared with migraine prevention and treatment strategies.
Identify your migraine triggers and avoid them to have fewer attacks. There are varying migraine triggers that may be different depending on the person. Common triggers include:
- Alcoholic or caffeinated beverages
- Bright lights, loud noises or strong smells
- Certain types of foods that vary from person to person
- Hormonal changes
- Irregular sleep patterns
- Weather changes
Related article: Migraine and weather triggers: tips to manage your symptoms
In addition to managing triggers, preventive and rescue treatments may help reduce your migraine days. See a headache specialist to find out what may be right for you, whether oral medications, injections, dietary supplements called nutraceuticals or wearable devices called electroceuticals.
Related article: How to tell the difference between headaches and migraines
A headache specialist may also prescribe a rescue medication to take during a migraine attack. In addition to treatments, it is also important to know which interventions will help reduce migraine symptoms, such as staying in a dark, quiet room.
The bottom line: Research shows a link between migraine, allergies and asthma, which could cause people with migraine to experience symptoms that are more frequent during allergy season. Managing seasonal allergies may help to decrease migraine frequency, along with migraine prevention and treatment strategies from a headache specialist.