I got into a Lyft recently and instantly regretted it. The sickening smell of “lilies” filled the car — some type of air freshener. By the time I got to my destination, I was scrambling through my purse for my migraine and anti-nausea meds.
If you have migraine, you likely have triggers that aggravate your symptoms (for me, one is strong scents). Triggers are environmental and biological factors that can bring on a migraine attack.
Being aware of your triggers, and staying away from them, will help you avoid migraine flares and enjoy more pain-free days.
Here are 7 common migraine triggers. Plus, learn how to manage symptoms when the pain sneaks up.
People who have migraine often cite stress as a trigger — not surprising.
Stress can affect your ability to take care of yourself and when you’re stressed, your normal routine might be affected. Maybe you’re not getting enough sleep, or you’re not eating well, or you’ve just had a very long, hard day. Self-care is a huge part of keeping migraine in check.
One small study shows that stress may also lead to a “let down” headache after the strain subsides. This is a big reason people with migraine may have an uptick in migraine symptoms over the weekend (ugh 😑).
Stress can also create muscle tension the jaw, neck, and shoulders, triggering migraine.
About 50 percent of people who have migraine or tension headaches also experience insomnia. This connection is what researchers call “bidirectional.” One issue can trigger the other and vice versa.
To sleep better at night, take some time before bed to relax. Try meditating, stretching, or breathing exercises (bingeing your fave show on Netflix doesn’t count, sorry).
Most importantly, limit any distractions by turning your phone/tablet/laptop off or putting it away before you go to sleep.
To some people, scented things are pleasant. When you have chronic migraine, a strong scent can derail your entire day.
I mentioned air fresheners are a problem for me. Other people might take issue with personal hygiene products, cleaning items, and strong chemical smells. Scent triggers include:
- cleaning products
Avoiding scent triggers can be tricky. I opt to clean with natural products at home, and I don’t wear perfume. I also remove any plug-in air fresheners in the guest room when I’m staying in someone else’s home.
I gave up getting my eyebrows waxed because I can’t handle infrared lamps. When I teach university courses, I dim the first row of fluorescents in the classroom. My students probably think I’m a vampire.
Studies show that bright lights and long-term exposure to light, including sunlight, can trigger migraine attacks.
People who have migraine are especially sensitive to blue light, the kind emitted by laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Going down that endless Instagram scroll as you lay in bed is tempting, but ultimately not worth it.
Once you get a migraine attack, you may also experience photophobia — aka extreme sensitivity to light. For some people, a migraine means they have to lie in dark room.
I’ve found some relief with the help of photochromatic lenses, which adjust to my environment and have the added benefit of blocking blue light.
Like Lorelai Gilmore, nothing can stop me from having my morning coffee, even though caffeine can be a migraine trigger. The good news is you can have one or two caffeinated drinks each day without risking migraine pain (but drinking three or more could).
If you’ve already hit your caffeine limit for the day, try opting for decaf. Maybe it’s just the flavor you’re craving.
What about booze? Alcohol can be a trigger too. In one study, more than 35 percent of participants cited alcohol as a trigger, with red wine being the biggest offender. However, only 9 percent said red wine consistently led to a migraine attack.
If you drink, do so in moderation. Continue to be mindful of which type of drinks trigger your symptoms.
Unfortunately, certain foods can be triggers too. Even more complicated, just because something is a known migraine trigger, doesn’t mean it will trigger you, specifically. Everyone is different.
Your trigger foods are unique to you. Known food triggers include:
- aged cheese
- fermented foods
- processed meats
The American Migraine Foundation recommends keeping a migraine diary to determine your food triggers.
When you get a migraine, note the foods you ate over the last 24 hours. If you start to notice a common culprit, eliminate the item from your diet for a month to see if it helps.
I started noticing an uptick in migraines during periods of cold, rainy days. The weather trigger might sound a little woo-woo, but research supports it.
In one study of 100 patients with migraine, 13 percent of participants experienced weather-related changes to their headaches. Changes in barometric pressure, relative humidity, and ambient temperature may provoke pain.
You can use the same trigger-tracking approach for weather as with food. Keep a migraine diary and record weather details to see if you note a pattern. You can’t change the weather, but you may be able to prepare for bad days.
Your trigger list may be long or short. Regardless, avoiding triggers isn’t always easy. And sometimes migraine just comes without something sparking them. When a migraine attack strikes, it’s good to have a few methods in place to ease symptoms.
It’s also important to highlight that research shows that a constellation of triggers are usually responsible for migraine. For example, sleep deprivation + stress + menstruation can result in the perfect storm for producing a migraine episode.
When I get a migraine attack, the head pain is crushing, but the nausea is sometimes unbearable. It took me a while to find something that helped.
Call your doctor if you already set up a treatment plan for your migraines symptoms. A doctor can help you find medication to ease migraine pain or prevent attacks from happening.
The treatment your doctor prescribes will depend on your migraine symptoms, any other medications you take, and your overall health.
With all the potential triggers out there, the world can seem like an obstacle course for people with migraine. Having to avoid your triggers can feel frustrating when you just want to go about your day.
I try to take a knowledge-is-power approach, though. Knowing my triggers helps me plan. I still use rideshare a lot, but now I carry peppermint oil to combat the effects of any lily-loving Lyft drivers.
Jennifer Chesak is a medical journalist for several national publications, a writing instructor, and a freelance book editor. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill. Jennifer lives in Nashville but hails from North Dakota, and when she’s not writing or sticking her nose in a book, she’s usually running trails or futzing with her garden.