A Doctor Explains Why Allergies Can Give You Headaches
April showers bring May flowers bring migraines.
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. If temperature changes always give you headaches, you might be curious to know if the headache-allergies overlap was coincidental, or if allergies really can cause headaches.
“Allergies can cause headache in multiple ways,” Dr. Luz Fonacier M.D., allergy section head at NYU Langone Hospital Long Island and president of theAmerican College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, tells Bustle. 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.
“Allergies can be associated with sinus headaches,” Dr. Fonacier says. If you’re prone to swollen sinuses, your headaches may be directly related to that. “Sinus headaches and pain occur when the sinuses are swollen and their openings into the nasal passages are obstructed, stopping normal drainage and causing pressure to build up,” she says. They’ll show up with most intensity when your allergies are at their worst, and will likely go away when you take over-the-counter histamines, but you might need prescription medication for severe cases.
But sinuses aren’t the sole cause of allergy headaches. “Allergies can be a trigger for migraine headache,” Dr. Fonacier says. Migraines are more severe than your run-of-the-mill headaches; they can involve serious pain, sensitivity to light and noise, nausea, and disable you completely. A small 2017 study published in Acta neurologica Belgica found that specific airborne allergens like dust, red birch, and hazel tree pollen could trigger migraines. If your allergies stop you from sleeping, Dr. Fonacier says that can also contribute to a stress headache the next day.
There’s also something called an exertional headache that can be caused by a lot of coughing and sneezing. It’s not directly linked to allergies, but it can be caused by the symptoms. If it persists for more than a few days and doesn’t seem to respond to pain medication, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.
Over time, Dr. Fonacier says, you may notice that certain things are more likely to set off your headaches. “Triggers to allergy headache include nasal or sinus congestion, stress, insomnia, and smoke,” she says. It can be worth keeping a record of your headaches to watch for patterns: high pollen count, stress, or a lot of coughing might set one off.
“Many allergens that trigger sinus headaches are airborne and are difficult to avoid,” Dr. Fonacier says. That means escaping them entirely could be impossible, unless you live in a hermetically sealed tube or something. She recommends seeing an allergist to track your headaches and work out a treatment plan.
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.
Dr. Luz Fonacier MD.
Bektas, H., Karabulut, H., Doganay, B., & Acar, B. (2017). Allergens might trigger migraine attacks. Acta neurologica Belgica, 117(1), 91–95. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13760-016-0645-y
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