We can all agree that separately, both headaches and allergies are The Worst. And if you're one of the "lucky" folks who starts dealing with both as soon as spring rolls around, you know that combined, headaches and allergies are like a misery superweapon. But allergy season coincides with the start of warmer weather, and temperature changes always give me headaches, too, so I was curious if the headache-allergies overlap was coincidental, or if allergies really can cause headaches.
Luckily, Dr. Susan Hutchinson, a migraine expert and medical advisor to MigraineX, was able to provide some insight. It turns out that yes, allergies can totally cause headaches — and there are some pretty sure signs that will tell you whether your headache is allergy-related, or whether it's a type of migraine, or even just a plain (though of course still painful) headache, and knowing how to differentiate between types of headaches can help you get yourself the best treatment possible.
According to Hutchinson, the difference between a seasonal allergy-related headache versus a tension headache or a migraine is that "a seasonal allergy-related headache would most likely be associated with sneezing, congestion, and/or ocular itching," she tells Bustle. If you're not seeing an increase in these symptoms with your head pain, you may have a non-allergy-related migraine or headache.
Hutchinson also tells Bustle that allergy-related headaches "would be expected to respond to over-the-counter antihistamines" including popular allergy medications as well as nasal steroid sprays "such as Flonase or Nasacort."
By contrast, something like a tension headache "typically does not have congestion symptoms or a season variation," usually occurs in periods of high stress, and "is characterized by a tight band around the head, mild to moderate discomfort, no nausea, no sensitivity to light, and no congestion/allergy symptoms," Hutchinson explains. With allergy-related headaches, you should expect to have periods of no headaches when your allergies are at their least virulent, she adds.
She also notes that migraines differ from both regular headaches and from allergy-related headaches. She calls migraines "a chronic disabling disease characterized by attacks of moderate to severe headache, nausea/vomiting, sensitivity to light and noise, and if untreated, can last 48-72 hours." If you're experiencing these symptoms, your headache is likely not allergy-related, and is in fact a whole different beast from headaches in general.
But even if you don't get a headache directly from your allergies, you can get a headache from other symptoms of allergies, like "excessive coughing or sneezing," Hutchinson says. She cautions, though, that if you're noticing an "exertional headache" for more than a few days while you're not feeling well, you should check in with your healthcare provider, since an exertional headache "could represent an underlying more serious problem such as an aneurysm or brain tumor or increased intracranial pressure."
Hutchinson also notes that weather-related headaches tend to worsen around the same time as seasonal allergies do. As someone who deals with weather-related headaches all spring, I always keep an icy face mask or three in my freezer, just waiting for the change in air pressure to make my sinuses ~real mad~. While weather headaches obviously are not allergy-related, it's important to know how to manage them too, since they can occur at the same time of year.
Hutchinson recommends MigraineX ear pressure regulating ear plugs for people who struggle with headaches caused by barometric pressure changes. And for general headache and migraine management, she says it's a good idea to keep a headache diary to "watch for patterns to best identify headache triggers." Common headache migraine triggers include "weather/changes in barometric pressure, stress, lack of sleep, hormonal fluctuations, food additives/preservatives, and poor lifestyle," she says, and knowing what your triggers are can help you avoid them — and avoid headaches.
Allergy season is pretty much always terrible, but with management of both your allergies and the headaches that can come along with them, you can get through it with as little pain as possible.