Why do some people experience debilitating headaches in colder weather?

  • Do you frequently experience a headache when it rains or gets colder?
  • Research over the years has found that many people experience headaches when the barometric pressure drops
  • Luckily, there are several medications and coping strategies to help

As large cold fronts sweep across South Africa, often with heavy rain in the Western Cape, many people are experiencing headaches as part and parcel of the cold weather.

But why are some people’s headaches triggered by the colder weather?

It’s all about the pressure

When the temperature drops suddenly, the pressure in the atmosphere becomes lower – and when this happens, you might be feeling the onset of another dreaded headache – and research shows that there is indeed a correlation.

According to research published in the journal Neurology, a group of scientists investigated more than 7 000 people who suffered from headaches in Boston between 2000 and 2007. The researchers also investigated data from the National Weather Service to look at fluctuating temperatures, barometric pressure and humidity within 72 hours of each person visiting the medical centre complaining of headaches.

While the researchers found that an increase in temperature and humidity can also increase headaches, headache risk can increase by 6% for every 5mm drop in barometric pressure.

A more recent 2017 study published in the Journal of Oral Rehabilitation also found a link between the severity of migraine pain and atmospheric pressure.

How is this related to your head?

When the pressure in the atmosphere drops, the small, air-filled sinus cavities and ear chambers experience an air pressure imbalance, which may cause headaches.

Those who are prone to migraines may also experience worsening symptoms when the weather turns frosty.

Other environmental factors associated with colder weather, such as drier air, windier conditions or indoor heaters and fires may also be common triggers of headaches. Some experts believe that people who frequently experience headaches are in general more sensitive to changes in their environment, and that any change in their environment may trigger a headache.

What can you do when that headache hits?

You can’t control the weather, but luckily, there are ways to manage these debilitating headaches. So, when the rain is about to bucket down and you feel that headache approaching, these strategies can help you find some relief:

  • Try an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication (NSAIDs). You can discuss which medicines will work best with your pharmacist or doctor.
  • Discuss the use of triptans, a medication for migraine or cluster headaches, with your doctor.
  • Apply an ice-pack or cool cloth on your head and neck.
  • Limit common triggers such as alcohol, sugar and caffeine.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water or herbal tea.
  • Take a warm bath or shower.
  • Avoid screens, bright lights and noise and get some rest.

READ | Are you using the wrong painkillers?

READ | Is your hand pain arthritis, carpal tunnel, or something else?

Image credit: iStock

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