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How Extreme Heat Contributes to Headaches and Migraines

By meerna Jul11,2024
How Extreme Heat Contributes to Headaches and Migraines

Audrey Pachuta first experienced a heat-related headache when she was 9. That summer, during a softball tournament in her home state of New Jersey, the players on the field had to contend with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Severe pain, she recalled, pulsating in her eyes after each match.

“I can’t see anything!” she shouted to her father after a particularly exciting match.

Pachuta, 19, now realizes her vision problems were the result of heat-induced migraines.

Since then, heat waves have become more frequent and longer around the world because of climate change. An estimated 39 million Americans suffer from migraines, according to the American Migraine Foundation. Half of people with migraines cite weather as one of their headache triggers, according to Elizabeth Loder, head of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Headache Division.

Here’s what you need to know about heat headaches and how to avoid them.

Does heat really cause headaches?

Experts agree that heat may be a major factor, but headaches are often influenced by a variety of environmental factors.

High temperatures are often accompanied by changes in atmospheric pressure, direct exposure to sunlight and air humidity, and these changes in the environment can trigger headaches in migraine sufferers.

“The migraine brain doesn’t like change,” says Jessica Ailani, a neurologist and director of the Headache Center at MedStar Georgetown. “It wants you to sleep at the same time, eat the same things. So big changes in temperature and weather don’t help migraines.”

Experts aren’t sure of the exact mechanism by which heat can trigger a headache, although heat can trigger processes known to cause headaches. Extreme dehydration can cause the brain to shrink and pull on the blood vessels lining the brain, which can lead to physical pain, Loder said.

In extreme cases, heat can have an effect function of brain neurons, according to Mayo Clinic neurologist Narayana Kissoon. The altered cell function leads to increased activity in pain centers in the brain, he said.

What is the difference between a headache and a migraine?

Headache is a common symptom of many diseases, Loder said, while migraine is a neurological disorder that causes headaches.

“It’s like the difference between sneezing (probably an allergy) and a cold (which is a specific viral illness),” Cherubino Di Lorenzo, head of the neurology department at the Sapienza University of Rome, said in an email.

People diagnosed with migraine experience headaches due to various causes factors, including stress, dehydration, lack of sleep — and, of course, the heat — experts say. Women suffer from migraines more often than men. Migraines are usually associated with other symptoms, such as: nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and hypersensitivity to light or sound.

Pachuta finds Relief from heat-induced migraines by lying down in a dark room with your eyes closed until the pain behind your eyes subsides. You may catch a migraine attack early if your mild headache is accompanied by a general feeling of “being in another state.”

However, Loder said the heat is unlikely to cause headaches in people who don’t normally suffer from it.

In such cases, headache caused by high temperature could be a sign of a more serious heat-related illness, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, Loder said. It’s important to recognize these symptoms early, stay hydrated and find a place to cool off.

Experts agree that dehydration can certainly impair your body’s ability to cope with heat, but it may not necessarily be the cause of a heat headache.

Extreme heat can lead to electrolyte imbalance as the body loses sodium through sweating, so it is important to replace electrolytes and water.

“Dehydration is closely related to electrolyte imbalances, because water follows salt,” Kissoon said. “With the loss of salt, the body has less ability to retain water.”

However, heat headaches can occur even in well-hydrated people.

Patrick Cortesi, 55, is a landscaper for the Bloomington, Ill., local school district. Because his job requires him to be outdoors 40 hours a week, Cortesi wears sunscreen, drinks plenty of water and takes breaks from using the air conditioner during the warmer days of the year. Still, Cortesi suffers from multiple headaches during the week in a region known for its seasonally humid conditions, which can cause corn sweat.

“It’s not just dehydration,” Ailani said. “You have to take better care of yourself, whenever the heat index gets to that point… you can’t just drink it.”

What can be done to alleviate symptoms?

Experts advise not to underestimate the problem.

A heat headache, especially if you don’t have a migraine, is a sign that things may be getting worse. Get out of the heat and try cooling down with a cold drink or an ice pack. Look for indoor air conditioning and use cooling centers during a heatwave.

Drink water and electrolyte drinks to help your body replenish itself. Add electrolytes to your water by adding a little salt or lemon juice, Ailani said.

Then you can use strategies that usually help with headaches, Loder says, such as lying down in a dark room with your eyes closed.

Avoid known trigger foods and limit alcohol, which can contribute to dehydration, Kissoon said. Sugary drinks can also lead to dehydration, Di Lorenzo said.

Another seemingly obvious suggestion? Avoid exercising outdoors in high temperatures.

“It seems like a silly piece of advice, but almost all the cases of heatstroke headaches described in the literature involve people who did not follow this common sense rule,” Di Lorenzo said.

However, if you must go outside, sunglasses can be a helpful preventative measure, he added.

There are several tried-and-true over-the-counter medications for headaches, such as aspirin and Tylenol. Doctors can also prescribe triptans, which work by binding to serotonin receptors and preventing the release of substances that stimulate neural activity, Loder said.

Migraine treatments recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration include CGRP antagonists, which target a molecule that plays a role in headaches. Lasmiditan, which works similarly to triptans, may be safer for migraineurs with a history of vascular disease, Kissoon said.

Additional preventive treatments such as CGRP monoclonal antibodies block the action of CGRP and are taken by migraine sufferers regardless of whether they have a headache.

“We recommend that a migraine sufferer who has headaches on six or more days per month take preventive medication to reduce the number of headache days,” Kissoon said.

People suffering from headaches should contact a doctor as soon as possible.

“It’s not a hopeless case,” Ailani said. “There are many treatments that can help you get through these difficult months.”

By meerna

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