The likelihood of a headache increases during the summer months. According to a recent study which surveyed ER visits for headaches, every 9°F rise in temperature increased a person’s short-term risk of a headache by about 7.5% before their emergency room visit. Heat, dehydration, weather changes and barometric pressure changes are the primary drivers of headaches during the summer months, but some lifestyle factors, such as the foods we eat during the summer, can also increase the risk of headaches.
Heat, Headaches, and the Weather
During the summer months, heat can be a contributor to both headaches and migraines. In certain areas of the country where barometric pressures can change suddenly during a storm, people frequently report headaches. This is a common and classic migraine trigger. Sometimes a headache may be caused by heat exhaustion, which has the following associated symptoms:
- Muscle cramps or tightness
- Numbness in the face and neck
- Nausea or vomiting
- Cold, clammy, pale skin
- Fast and weak pulse
- Weakness or tiredness
- Drenching sweat
- Extreme thirst
For a summer headache that is not related to heat exhaustion, your symptoms may only include a throbbing or dull achy sensation in your head, fatigue, sensitivity to light, and dehydration. If you do have heat exhaustion, it is best to seek medical help because heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
Relief for Heat and Weather-Related Headaches
For people prone to headaches and migraines triggered by heat, there are some ways to mitigate them. It might be wise to limit outdoor times on hotter days. Sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen can also help. If you need to exercise, try to stay indoors in an air-conditioned environment. Sports drinks that contain electrolytes and plenty of water will also help you stay hydrated. If you already are suffering from a heat-related headache, certain essential oils, cold compresses, iced herbal teas (without caffeine), and NSAIDs can help reduce the intensity of the headache.
Exercise and Summer Headaches
Heat and exercise are often a combination of conditions for a headache, but if you choose to exercise, there are certain things that you can do to avoid getting a headache. Generally speaking, it is understood that when a person exercises, the blood vessels within their skull dilate. If you participate in strenuous activities, like rowing, running, weight lifting, or team sports (like baseball, softball, or volleyball), these can contribute to a headache.
Avoiding activities like these in high heat is advisable. However, another way to avoid headaches related to exercise is to develop a set of warm up exercises, which can help prevent headaches. Some good warmup exercises include stretches, followed by some light jogging and walking.
The Importance of Staying hydrated To Prevent Headaches
As a rule of thumb, people have generally learned that you should drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day. That is about two liters. However, during hot summer days when you are active, you might need to increase that to about 2-½ liters. When you are dehydrated, the brain can shrink and this causes the brain to pull away from the skull, causing a headache. When you relieve your dehydration, the brain returns to a normal state, relieving the headache.
Pollution, Allergens, and Summer Headaches
During the summer months, there are also other factors, like pollution and allergens, that can lead to headaches. Various air pollutants tend to increase during the summer months due to more people traveling and there being vehicles on the road. Lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matters all increase during the summer months and can cause headaches. Headaches that are related to pollution are often intense, sometimes leading to the point of being disabling, because they are often migraine. Pollution irritates the lungs, eyes, and triggers what is sometimes a very intense headache.
Allergy headaches have unique symptoms. Sometimes a person may experience pain localized over the sinus area and some other facial pain. More intense headaches can be throbbing and one-sided and sometimes are accompanied by nausea, and these are more likely to represent migraine.
Foods and Headaches During the Summer
More people typically barbecue and picnic during the summer months. Certain “summer foods” can trigger headaches. For example, hot dogs can potentially trigger headaches because of nitrites. Nitrites are generally present in some foods in very small quantities, but sensitivity will vary depending upon the person to this chemical. Processed meats like salami and bacon also can contain varying levels of nitrites. In this situation, it is best to substitute processed meats for something like a salad. Even the condiments that you put on your food can trigger headaches. Instead of pickles, you might want to consider swapping them for fresh vegetables on your burger. Avoid aged cheeses and try fresh herbs instead of soy-based condiments. More detailed discussion of migraine triggers can be found here.
Sunburn and Headaches
Generally, when we get sunburn, we think nothing of it and it goes away within a few days. However, sunburn can be more severe in certain types of situations. When swimming, sunburn is often more intense if you don’t use sunscreen. Sunburn can happen relatively quickly, within just 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure. Some of the symptoms that you can get with severe sunburn include:
- Tenderness and blistering of the skin
- Pain and tingling sensations in the burned area
- Headaches, fevers and chills
- Nausea, dizziness, and dehydration.
The type of headache that accompanies a severe sunburn can sometimes feel like exhaustion and will often cover the entire head. To relieve a sunburn headache, cool/cold treatments can often help alleviate the intensity, including cold compresses, a cold shower, and drinking water.
Taking Care of Headaches During the Summer
Headaches are more frequent during the late spring and summer months. By drinking plenty of water, staying hydrated, regulating our exposure to sunshine, paying attention to food triggers, and not overexerting ourselves, we can reduce the potential for frequent and intense headaches. However, even with taking these precautions, headaches and migraines will still periodically happen. Thus, it is important to have a good abortive headache treatment such as the gepants (Ubrelvy, Nurtec ODT), Ditans (Reyvow), triptans, or regular over the counter (OTC) pain medicines such as acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen if they work for you and if you can use them safely. If the headache frequency is high enough (generally more than 4 per month), a preventive headache or migraine treatment should be considered until your high frequency headache cycle subsides.
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