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Migraines from Heat? Tips for Managing Heat-Induced Headaches

Migraines and heat

Summer heat brings to mind relaxing days, backyard barbecues, and splashing in the water to keep cool. But for many people with migraines, the heat of summer can trigger attacks. If your migraines worsen in hot weather, read on to learn tips for preventing and managing heat-induced headaches so you can enjoy the thrills of summer.

Can you get migraines from heat?

Yes. People who claim heat worsens the frequency or severity of their migraines are likely correct. The American Migraine Foundation lists excessive heat among the most common migraine triggers.

A large-scale study published in the March 2009 issue of the journal Neurology found an increase in heat can trigger migraines. Researchers analyzed more than 7,000 emergency room visits for severe headaches at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston between May 2000 and December 2007. The researchers reviewed environmental data, such as temperature, barometric pressure, and pollution levels, in the week before the ER visit and the day of the visit. They found:

  • Temperatures were higher on the day patients visited the ER than on the previous days, and

  • A temperature increase of 9 degrees meant a 7.5 percent increased risk of a headache-related ER visit.

The researchers said the key factor triggering headaches was not the higher temperature itself, but rather the increase in temperature in the day leading up to the ER visit. The study also found a modest link between headaches (non-migraine) and barometric pressure changes a day or two before the ER visit.

Small-scale studies have also linked increased body temperature to migraine and cluster headaches, but more research is needed to confirm the connection.

Though the exact link between heat and headaches remains unknown, it is generally believed that prolonged exposure to heat activates neurons in a part of the brain called hypothalamus, which regulate body temperature and ensure that it remains around 37 degrees C. The hypothalamus is also thought to play a role in migraine initiation.

The take home message here is that it is worth paying attention to your distinct responses to heat, barometric pressure changes, and other seasonal variables.

Why are migraines worse in summer?

Migraines can worsen in summer because the warm months increase the prevalence of some common seasonal headache triggers, such as:

  • Heat

  • Humidity

  • Summer pollen (grasses and weeds)

  • Dehydration

  • More time spent outdoors in natural light

  • Sleep changes due to longer days

But the triggers and underlying causes of migraine vary significantly between people. If any of these conditions — or a combination — trigger your migraines, chances are summer is a tough season for you. If these conditions don’t trigger your migraines, summer shouldn’t be an especially challenging time for attacks.

Although it may seem confusing, another possible summer migraine trigger is actually the reduced stress that comes with days off from work or school and more time spent unwinding or on vacation.

In a study published in the journal Neurology in 2014, researchers tracked the stress levels of 17 migraine patients for three months, with the patients self-reporting in electronic migraine diaries. The study found the risk of migraine was almost five times greater for these patients within the first six hours after they reported a drop in their stress levels. Researchers believe these migraine attacks may be related to the hormone cortisol, which the body releases during times of stress.

Alternatively, it is possible that the release of stress hormones may be somewhat protective, allowing you to continue with your duties or tasks as they may be essential for your viability and security, and that only when the stress is over and the level of stress hormones in your blood is reduced can you ‘allow’ yourself to have a migraine attack ‘safely’.

The best way to avoid this trigger is to manage your stress levels so that you don’t experience sharp drops or rises in cortisol. Some helpful stress-reduction strategies include meditation, prioritizing sleep, and exercising.

Discover heat headache symptoms

Any discussion of heat and headaches must include heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Headaches are symptoms of both heat-related illnesses (severe and throbbing in the case of heatstroke). These headaches will coincide with other symptoms of heat-related illness, such as profuse sweating, dizziness, and an accelerated heart rate. If you are prone to headaches in the heat, know the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke to distinguish between heat-induced migraines and these illnesses.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Sweating

  • Moist, cool skin even in the heat

  • Dizziness

  • Weak, accelerated pulse

  • Muscle cramps

  • Nausea

  • Headache

If you suspect you have heat exhaustion, lie down in a cool location, apply cool compresses, and drink water. And if your symptoms don’t subside, go to the emergency room.

Symptoms of heatstroke:

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Body temperature above 103 degrees

  • Hot, dry skin

  • Throbbing headache

  • Convulsions

  • Confusion

  • Loss of consciousness

Heatstroke is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention.

For migraine headaches induced by heat or summer environmental variables, knowing your early warning signs and attack symptoms can help you manage your migraine early and effectively. Here’s what to watch for:

  • Mood changes or irritability

  • Yawning and malaise

  • Acute, dull, or throbbing head pain

  • Pain in the face or neck

  • Light sensitivity

  • Sound sensitivity

  • Nausea

  • Aura (flashes of light, seeing shapes, vision loss)

Heat migraine relief: 5 prevention and pain management tips

1. Track the weather and your symptoms

If you suspect heat is a trigger for you, pay attention when the summer months roll around. Track daily temperatures and the weather morning and night, as well as how you feel. Note mild symptoms as well as full-blown attacks. You may soon notice that your migraine attacks begin a few hours after a temperature spike. It may take a bit longer to notice a trend, however. Tracking your symptoms for months may reveal that you have more migraines in the summer than in the fall or spring.

If you discover you are sensitive to temperature increases, follow the below strategies as soon as you notice early symptoms.

Tip: Even if heat isn’t an issue for you, keeping a headache diary is a helpful way to track your triggers and your most effective prevention and management strategies.

2. Stay hydrated

Because dehydration is a common underlying cause of headaches and migraine attacks even in cool weather, drinking plenty of water and other nourishing fluids is an essential prevention strategy. Keep a large cool bottle of water with you wherever you go and sip from it frequently throughout the day. If you need to, set a timer or use an app for reminders. If you’re getting tired of still water, learn the drinks that can help with headaches.

3. Take the medication recommended by your doctor

The best medication varies between migraine patients and may be either over-the-counter or prescription. As soon as you notice your early migraine symptoms, such as yawning or irritability, take your medication. This can prevent the onset of the migraine attack, or minimize the attack’s intensity or length.

4. Sit in a cool room — with the lights off or using a narrow-band green light

If you feel the early signs of a heat-related headache, go to a quiet spot where you can sit or lie down and relax. Turn the lights off, pull the shades, and take a nap or meditate if you have the time. If you are at work or are unable to sleep, try using a narrow-band green light such as the portable Allay Lamp, to continue your work or read. Compared to everyday light, this unique band has been shown to create smaller electrical signals that help calm your brain - even during a migraine.

5. Turn to your tried-and-true migraine management strategies

This is where diligent tracking of triggers and effective migraine management in a headache diary pays off. Use the strategies that work best and most consistently for you. Possibilities include:

  • The caffeine in a cup of coffee or tea

  • Wearing sunglasses

  • A massage

  • Mindfulness meditation

  • Therapy

What works for you will be unique. You have to pay attention over time to figure out your ideal methods.

Everything you need to know about migraines and heat

When you apply heat deliberately, it can help your migraine, but the heat of summer may bring it on. Here are a few answers to commonly asked questions about heat and migraine.

Is heat good for a migraine?

Heat and the summer months bring many migraine triggers, such as dehydration, bright sunlight, and allergies. For people sensitive to these triggers, hot weather and the summer season is a definite challenge. Knowing your triggers and being prepared with a migraine management toolkit can help.

Direct and targeted heat in the form of warm packs, on the other hand, can help lessen the pain of tension-type headaches. As always, experiment with new management strategies and track your response in your headache diary. Apply warmth to your neck and shoulders with:

  • A warm shower or bath

  • A heating pad on a low setting

  • A hot water bottle (with warm water, rather than hot)

  • A warm compress or towel

  • Instant hot packs

Don’t go too hot, as this can trigger headaches rather than soothe them.

Are migraines triggered by weather changes?

Yes. Weather changes, such as the arrival of thunderstorms or rising temperatures, can trigger migraines and headaches. Hurricanes, for example, can cause barometric changes that can influence the pain centers for certain individuals.

Now you know more about migraines from heat

If you are one of the many migraineurs affected by hot-weather triggers, you can make changes that prevent attacks, shorten their duration, and minimize pain and other symptoms. Spend time pinpointing your personal triggers so you can avoid them as much as possible, and have your migraine management tools at the ready — even on vacation. Next up, learn more about managing your migraines.