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These headache triggers might surprise you

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Do you deal with regular headaches? Learn what might be causing them and how you can get relief.

It seems to happen the same way every time. You’re going about your day like normal, when suddenly a dull pain appears in your head. You have a headache, and you just want it to go away.

Actually, headaches are very common, notes Jonathan Sarezky, MD, a neurologist at Optum Neurology in Huntington, New York. “There are several different types, and they have many different causes.”

Most headaches fall into these categories:

  • Tension-type headaches. These headaches can be caused by tight muscles in your scalp, shoulders, neck and jaw.1 Poor sleep, stress, eyestrain and even poor posture can trigger a tension headache.2 They are one of the most common types of headache, says Dr. Sarezky.
     
  • Migraines. You get these because of a neurological condition that causes not only that nasty headache but potential other symptoms, such as sensitivity to light and sound, an upset stomach and throwing up.3
     
  • Cluster headaches. These are less common than the other types. They can occur daily or almost every day for months or weeks. Then, they will disappear for a month or longer.4
     
  • Sinus headaches. These are also less common, and they are caused by sinus infections (inflammation of your sinus tissue caused by bacteria or viruses). Symptoms may include head pain and a weaker sense of smell (or no smell). You may also have mucus (a thick, sticky or slippery substance) clogging up your nose.5
     
  • Headaches caused by an injury or head trauma. Head injuries can have long-term impacts, including chronic headaches. Talk to your doctor about how you can manage these headaches.

Not sure which type of headache you’re having? Here are 10 reasons you may be getting one.

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1. Sleep issues

Simply put, “Bad sleep makes headaches worse, and good sleep can make a headache better,” Dr. Sarezky says.

If your head starts hurting after not getting enough shut-eye, make it a point to start a regular sleep schedule.6

Too little sleep isn’t the only issue here. You can also get a headache from too much sleep.6 So, the trick is to figure out what the best amount of sleep is for you. One way that may help promote good sleep at night is to skip long daytime naps. Napping can reduce deep sleep at night and can even bring on a headache in some adults.6

Sleep apnea can also cause headaches. That’s a condition that causes your airways to collapse during sleep. “I screen for this in my patients with headaches, because headaches are a common symptom of sleep apnea,” says Dr. Sarezky.

Your doctor can refer you to a specialist if they think you might have sleep apnea.

Recommended reading: What does it mean to have healthy sleep?

2. Screen time

If you spend a lot of time on your computer or smartphone, that may lead to headaches. Here are two possible causes, notes Dr. Sarezky:

  • Bright lights. Bright or flickering lights can cause headaches.
     
  • Poor posture while using a screen. Do you slump when you use your phone or laptop? This position can cause tension in the muscles in your head and neck area. That can then cause a headache.

If you use screens at night, they can also make it harder to get enough sleep. And that can lead to a headache.1 Try turning off your smartphone, tablet or laptop a few hours before going to bed.7

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3. Skipping meals

When you’re busy or overwhelmed, it’s easy to skip a nutritious meal. And being hungry can trigger a headache.

When you go a long time between meals, your blood sugar can drop. That means your brain isn’t getting the energy it needs from your blood sugar. That can lead to a headache.8

Maintaining regular, healthy eating habits can help ward off head pain. It is especially important to eat a healthy breakfast.1

4. Certain foods or snacks

Let’s say you skip a meal and eat an unhealthy snack in its place. For some people, these types of foods can bring on a migraine:5

  • Chocolate
  • Some aged cheeses
  • Processed or cured meats
  • Certain fruits and nuts
  • Pickles or fermented foods

Monosodium glutamate (a flavor enhancer, often simply referred to as MSG) and aspartame (an artificial sweetener often found in diet drinks) can also be headache triggers.

A great way to get ahead of a bad headache is to keep a food journal. This can help you track and better understand which foods may be to blame for your headaches.5

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5. Stress

Being stressed out can cause a headache. So, taking steps to reduce your stress may help you feel calmer and ease your headaches. A few good options include:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Meditation
  • Regular exercise, such as yoga or taking a walk

Doing a relaxing activity, such as reading or taking a bath, can help you cut back on stress. And that can help you stop a headache before it starts.5,6

Recommended reading: 20 proven ways to fight stress

6. Caffeine and caffeine withdrawal

Do you love starting off your day with a cup of coffee or two? That’s fine, but maybe avoid that third and fourth cup. Too much caffeine can cause headaches in some people, notes Dr. Sarezky. Energy drinks often contain plenty of caffeine too.

You might want to consider cutting back. Try limiting your consumption to two or fewer caffeinated beverages per day.8

But keep in mind, if you consume caffeinated foods or drinks regularly, suddenly stopping drinking them can cause a caffeine withdrawal headache.8 A withdrawal headache comes on after you ingest something frequently, such as caffeinated coffee, food or medicine, over a period of time and then stop abruptly.5

7. Alcohol

Do you enjoy having a beer or glass of wine after work? “Alcohol is a common trigger for headaches,” says Dr. Sarezky. It can cause throbbing pain on both sides of your head.8 In fact, wine and other types of alcohol can even trigger a migraine.5

Limiting how much alcohol you drink may help you avoid a headache, says Dr. Sarezky.

8. Not drinking enough water

Headed to the beach? You’ll want to make sure you have a water bottle with you. That’s because not drinking enough water (dehydration) can cause migraines and tension-type headaches.

Sometimes you may not even realize you’re dehydrated. A good rule of thumb is to aim to drink five to seven glasses of water each day.8 While sugary drinks can be refreshing, they can contain a lot of sugar and caffeine. Those things can dehydrate you.

Instead, try choosing water or a beverage that contains electrolytes.9 (Electrolytes are important minerals, including calcium and potassium, that your body needs to function.)

9. Wearing (or smelling) fragrances

Strong smells, such as perfume and bug spray, can lead to migraines in some people.9 If scents like this bother you, try shopping for fragrance-free versions of products like:9

  • Detergents, including laundry detergent and fabric softeners
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Insect repellants
  • Sunscreens

10. Changes in the weather

The heat and humidity outside can bring on a headache,10 particularly if you’re dehydrated or have had significant sweating, says Dr. Sarezky. Seasonal allergies can also lead to headaches.8

And even changing barometric pressure (air pressure) can cause migraines. That can happen at any time during the year.11

While you can’t change the weather, you can change your habits. Drink enough water and keep up with your allergy medications.

Headaches can be annoying, frustrating and painful. But knowing what causes them and what your triggers are can help you steer clear of them.

In rare cases, a headache can also be more serious. If yours is severe or getting worse, or you get headaches all the time, it’s a good idea to get checked out by your doctor.

Sources

  1. National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus. Headache. Last updated April 20, 2018. Accessed May 18, 2023.
  2. American Migraine Foundation. What is a tension-type headache? N.d. Accessed June 15, 2023.
  3. National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus. Managing migraines at home. Last reviewed November 9, 2021. Accessed May 18, 2023.
  4. National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus. Cluster headache. Last reviewed November 9, 2021. Accessed April 30, 2023.
  5. American Migraine Foundation. Migraine vs. sinus headache. Published June 21, 2021. Accessed May 18, 2023.
  6. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Headache. Last reviewed March 8, 2023. Accessed May 18, 2023.
  7. Sleep Foundation. How electronics affect sleep. Updated June 2, 2023. Accessed June 15, 2023.
  8. National Headache Foundation. The complete headache chart. N.d. Accessed May 18, 2023.
  9. American Migraine Foundation. FAQ: Understanding preventive treatment for migraine. Accessed May 18, 2023.
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heat stress—heat related illnesses. Last reviewed May 18, 2022. Accessed June 15, 2023.
  11. American Migraine Foundation. Seasonal migraine triggers. Published May 13, 2021.Accessed May 18, 2023.

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