Why changes in the weather and shifts between seasons can trigger migraine attacks

Watching the seasons change can be an enjoyable experience for everyone. But spring rain, winter’s first snowfall or the arrival of fall foliage also signal changes in the atmosphere that can trigger migraine attacks. Cynthia Armand, MD, a physician at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York, studies how the changing seasons affect people with migraine. During a recent Facebook Live presentation hosted by the American Migraine Foundation, Armand said the changes in the weather and transitions between seasons can influence migraine symptoms — but there are ways to mitigate those effects.

Weather Triggers for Migraines

There are certain “substances or conditions” that can trigger a migraine attack, including some of the subtle changes that accompany the shift between seasons, Armand said. These triggers won’t affect everyone, but anticipating their arrival can be a useful tool for people trying to manage their migraine preventatively.

Changing barometric pressure — also called atmospheric pressure — is a potential trigger for people with migraine. Barometric pressure fluctuates as the seasons change, and those variations can provoke a migraine attack.

“Our head is made up of pockets of air that we call sinuses. Usually, those pockets of air are at equilibrium with the atmospheric pressure,” Armand said. “When there’s a change in that atmospheric pressure, it creates a change, kind of like a shift, between what you’re experiencing in your head and what’s going on in the air.” That abrupt change may trigger migraine, Armand said.

Similarly, changing temperatures, whether from a warm summer easing into chilly autumn or cold winter temperatures climbing into a mild spring, can also be a trigger for people with migraine.

What To Watch Out For Each Season

Spring Migraine Triggers

The spring can see frequent shifts between sun and showers, meaning the barometric pressure is changing. The spring is also a problem time for people with allergies. These allergies can cause sneezing, runny nose, teary eyes and inflammation in a person’s sinuses.

Summer Migraine Triggers

This season is warm and humid, and people tend to perspire more, which can lead to dehydration. People with migraine will need to keep hydrated to avoid an attack, Armand said. There’s more sunlight and longer days, which can change people’s sleep patterns—a possible trigger for migraine. And some people with migraine might experience a “stress let down headache” when they get off work and relax at the start of a vacation, Armand said.

Fall Migraine Triggers

This is the time of year when cooler temperatures are coming in — meaning there will be temperature fluctuations at the beginning of the season, Armand said. Humidity will decrease and the barometric pressure will change — another migraine trigger — as the days get windier.  But there’s another aspect of fall you might not expect: The days are getting shorter, which can change your sleep schedule, Armand said. Having an inconsistent sleep cycle can trigger migraine, so try to track your sleep and make sure you’re getting enough rest.

Winter Migraine Triggers

The winter is usually marked by cold temperatures, dry air and snowstorms. That cold and dry air can lead to dehydration — especially if they increase the heating in their home, Armand said. The snowstorms that hit during the winter are also connected to changes in the barometric pressure, another possible trigger for migraine.

Avoiding Seasonal Triggers

Many of the same preventive measures recommended year-round to reduce migraine attacks are also effective against seasonal triggers. People with migraine should keep track of their diet, exercise and sleep cycles, and adhere to behaviors that correspond with a decrease in their symptoms, Armand said.

“The migraine brain loves schedule, so try to keep a normal schedule as much as possible,” Armand said.

In the spring, people with migraine should proactively treat their allergies. Your doctor can advise you on how best to limit your exposure to allergens, and antihistamine medications can help prevent inflammation.

Once summer comes, Armand recommends drinking more water than usual to stay hydrated. You should continue taking allergy medications if you have problems with pollen from trees, grass and weeds.

During the fall, do your best to avoid catching the colds that often circulate as temperatures dip. Wear weather-appropriate clothing, especially hats, to keep your body warm, and avoid exposure to anyone currently battling a bug. If you feel the warning signs of sickness, take immediate care to prevent your symptoms from worsening.

In the winter, people with migraine should increase how much water they’re drinking, since indoor heating dries out the air around you. A humidifier can be helpful to keep additional moisture in your environment. Seal any drafts in your house to avoid temperature fluctuation inside your home, Armand said.

Prevention is Worth More than Treatment for Seasonal Migraine

While many people find treatments that help relieve their symptoms once a migraine attack is underway, the best-case scenario is always preventing an attack from striking in the first place. The more you understand the unique nature of your migraine and its triggers, the easier it can be to anticipate and avoid them. Knowledge is a powerful tool for migraine management, which is why the American Migraine Foundation maintains a comprehensive resource library full of fact sheets, toolkits, and advice sourced directly from the nation’s leading migraine specialists. Visit AMF’s website to learn more and to find a headache doctor near you.