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My Week Without Migraine

I have lived with chronic migraine for over three years. Usually, sensory experiences that are considered “normal” to most are painful for me, and when enough of them are piled on top of each other, I am incapacitated by any combination of head pain, muscle pain, fatigue, nausea, and depression. Sound familiar?

I usually experience two or three full-blown attacks per week. But not this past week. This week was different. This week I had a common cold, and by some miraculous brain/nervous system flick of a switch, I was not only migraine-free, I had my old brain back. Overnight, the screech of the subway, the clouds of perfume, and the stress of a day at work on top of a poor night’s sleep no longer had the power to increase my pain levels. I tossed my ear plugs aside, left my tinted glasses in their case, and made my way about with only some tissues and a bottle of throat syrup with more energy than usual.

This wasn’t the first time a cold caused my migraine brain to quiet down. It’s happened several times before. When I have brought this to the attention of my healthcare practitioners, their first question is always “what have you done differently while you have a cold?” For a while, I thought this question would lead me to some exciting treatment plan modifications. Unfortunately, after much careful observation, I have concluded with certainty that all the things I do differently when I have a cold (binge-watching TV, eating when I feel like it, napping sporadically, and generally pushing my physical limits) are all things that bring on a migraine on any regular day. The only explanation I can come up with (keep in mind my complete lack of medical knowledge) is that somehow when my immune system is working overtime, it also quells whatever mysterious mechanism is at the root of my chronic pain.

Apparently, I’m an anomaly. I have yet to find another person with migraine who also experiences better migraine health while sick with a cold or flu. (Are you out there?) So, medical curiosities aside for now, what has this blessed week without migraine offered me, other than some very welcome respite?

  1. Personal confirmation of physiological root-cause for migraine.
    While it has been more or less established that migraine is caused by genetic and physiological forces, it can be hard not to trip over some form of self-blame when searching for answers. We live in a culture and time that emphasizes positive thinking and attitude as directly related to our physical and mental health, which is mostly a good thing, I think. But because we know that negative thoughts can contribute to our pain, it can be tempting to take this concept to its logical conclusion and imagine that we “succumb” to the pain as some kind of personal failure to employ the power of “mind over body,” or to heal ourselves of past psychological wounds.

    Here’s the thing: when I was sick with a chest cold and a cough that could wake the dead, I was still completely and utterly myself, with all my various flaws. I was still a perfectionist; I was still stressed out about my job; I was still palpably cranky at the end of a long day; and I was probably just as affected by whatever minor oppression or neglect I’ve experienced in my lifetime, but with one big difference: no migraine. I think it stands to reason that if I can be a deeply flawed human being with negative emotions and NOT have it spark a migraine, then the pain is not at all my fault. Negative emotions might exacerbate pain, and/or change the way I experience it, but in essence, the pain is not, and will never be my fault. Phew. Now to tattoo this on my forearm…

  2. A clear indication of the level of disability chronic migraine entails.

    Every morning I woke up with a deep chest rattle, sore throat, and a minor headache, I rejoiced. When my chest cold and cough faded away and my light, sound, and touch sensitivity returned, I was slain. To lease a non-migraine brain for a week had allowed me to do so many things again without constantly having to monitor and manage my environment, food intake, and mood. Even though it was nothing new, to be suddenly without my old abilities again was a shock to the system. There were some tears, and luckily some hugs to go with them.

    I do not care to dwell on this fact, but it is fairly revealing, both to me and potentially the public at large, that I would much rather be sick with a severe chest cold, sore throat and cough that keeps me up half the night than have frequent migraine attacks.

    [Excuse me a moment while I preach to the choir: MIGRAINE IS NOT A HEADACHE. IT CAN INVOLVE A MULTITUDE OF SYMPTOMS THAT ARE MUCH MORE DISABLING THAN THE COMMON COLD OR FLU. IT CAN INSTIGATE AND PERPETUATE MENTAL ILLNESS. IT IS A NASTY BEAST THAT CAN RUIN LIVES. IT HAS BEEN SEVERELY UNDERFUNDED IN COMPARISON TO THE LEVEL OF INDIVIDUAL DISABILITY AND SOCIETAL BURDEN IT CAUSES¹]

  3. Hope for a cure.

    If my common cold can stop migraine, than surely some docs can figure it out.

Here’s to hope.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Migraine.com team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Schwedt, T, Shapiro, R. Funding of Research on Headache Disorders by the National Institutes of Health. Headache. 2009. Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc3538853/. Accessed 2015.

Comments

  • HeatherT
    3 years ago

    I have experienced this as well. I’ve had almost daily migraines for 3+ years. A day without a migraine feels like a miracle and 2 in a row is almost unheard of. Yet, for the past 3 years, every time I’ve had a cold, I’ve gone several days in a row without a migraine. I usually get 1 or 2 colds a year and every time I do, the migraines disappear just as the cold symptoms get bad, and return as soon as I start to feel better (usually 4-7 days).
    For the first 2 years, I thought it must just be a fluke, but the pattern hasn’t changed and now I’ve started looking forward to those brief windows when I can feel like myself again (an extra phlegmy version of myself, but I’ll take what I can get).

  • DonnaFA moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Heather! That’s very interesting! I wonder if you have mentioned this to your doctor and what he may have made of the correlation? Thanks for sharing! -All Best, Donna (Migraine.com team)

  • SilverPhoenix13
    3 years ago

    From January 15th to about the end end of February this year I had a kidney stone. For nearly a month of that time I was completely migraine free, which was a complete relief. Although I’m lucky in that I do get good periods once in a while where I can go for a few weeks without migraines. They’re few and extremely ar between, though. Most of the time, I have 2 or three a week that last ni less than 3 days. In fact I just got over one that last lasted almost 5 full days. I’ve been migraine free for a day, but I can feel that another is going to start.

  • Warmrainydaze
    4 years ago

    Thanks for writing this journey you’ve been on with migraines and colds. I’ve noticed something of the same with a bit of a twist. For me, I have chronic severe headaches that aren’t necessarily migraines, but I also have migraines at least twice a month; the migraines seem to be linked to hormonal shifts, which I’ve wondered for years if they are related to the hormonal imbalances I have from Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.
    At any rate, Tylenol does nothing for either the migraines or the severe headaches; I might as well be eating candy for all the good it does me! That is UNTIL I get a cold. Then suddenly when mixed with allergy meds (I take those 365 days a year), and decongestants, the Tylenol suddenly stays working and I feel human again, for 4 hours at a stretch – max! Then I need another dose and I’m good again for another 4 hours.
    I’m not sure why this works, but I do know with a certainty that it does. So, you may be on to something important. I’m going to keep paying attention to the few times I’m headache & migraine free and see if there’s a link to that and a cold.
    By the way, I’ve tried to continue taking the same drug mixture once the cold is over and it quits working within less than a day. So, as for me, it’s not just the medication. It’s got to be something to do with the cold medicine AND the changes from the cold itself.
    Thanks again. I hope we can all come back in a year with new information.

  • trblankenship
    4 years ago

    Yay, we find each other! I too have experienced the “have a cold and no migraine” phenomenon. It’s only happened once, because besides my daily migraines, I don’t usually get sick. But this past summer I had a week with no migraine. I had to trade it with a racking cough, sinus so stuffed that I had to sleep sitting up – but I could have intelligent conversation without stepping on my words (I have aphasia), and there was no pain!
    I considered the antihistamine reaction, but I take antihistamines everyday in the spring when the first pollen floats through the air until the first frost. My headache specialist had never heard of such a thing, so it’s been set aside in my medical record as a fluke. Ho hum.

  • Dredders
    4 years ago

    Interesting… I had a chest cold in November and did not experience migraine pain for two weeks. I discussed this with my doctor. She suggested I try antihistamines. No success. Migraines are back. Painful and debilitating as ever.

  • Jani8
    4 years ago

    I have had similar experiences, but more often when I have the stomach flu. I figured that my body was giving me a break while I dealt with vomiting and diarrhea! I have used anti-histamines a lot and sometimes they helped and sometimes they didn’t.

    It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one that ever experienced this!

  • Primrose17
    4 years ago

    I wanted to add this to my original post but couldn’t figure out how to edit it! I think Histamine Intolerance is a far bigger problem for migraineurs than doctors realize. The root cause of many triggers may be histamine intolerance.

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    Agreed! I think it needs more attention.

  • Primrose17
    4 years ago

    Hi Anna, do you take antihistamine tablets when you have a cold? I’ve had chronic migraine for 25 years, its been quite a journey. Several years ago my neurologist prescribed me antihistamines as a daily preventative, worked well for 1 month then stopped working. 20 years ago I was aware I got post nasal drip from consuming dairy, but in the past 12 months I moved to the UK and my reaction to diary became more obvious – within an hour I will develop subtle wheezing, sinusitis & nasal drip, and over a few days even inflammation causing body aches and pains. (BTW 15 years ago I did an allergy panel and dairy did not come up.) With eliminating dairy and taking antihistamines when I know it is unavoidable or eating out, (many baked products have dairy even when not noted in ingredients) my migraines have decreased more in the last 12 months than even working with a neurologist for 10 years. I can get a bad one now about twice a month, and usually that is when I slip up and eat milk chocolate. (dark choc has theobromine which I have to avoid.) Yes, I do have other triggers, but they are minor compared to dairy. Anyone reading this, please look up HISTAMINE INTOLERANCE. The past few weeks with all the cheap xmas chocolate I’ve been taking antihistamines almost every day, and even daily headaches have lessened. sara’s comments about extra hydration with a cold is interesting too. With all my heart I wish you well, YOU WILL FIGURE IT OUT.

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    Glad to hear you’ve experienced significant improvements! And yes, over time, we do generally figure out new strategies and treatments that help. I will hope to have more future improvements (even if they do not occur in a predictable linear progression).

  • Carrie o.
    4 years ago

    I rarely get colds but I got one in September and my migraines stopped during the cold and for several days after. Normally I have chronic migraines and every day or every other day is not unusual, but I did not have one for 2 weeks! I thought it was very strange when it happened. Now I know it’s not completely unheard of! Thanks!
    Carrie

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    So thankful we can make online connections so we know we’re not alone in our seemingly strange bodily responses 🙂

  • philsphan87
    4 years ago

    You are not alone! I have chronic migraine with 30 headache days a month and also experience a sort of “remission” when sick. I usually think that my body is too busy fighting off the virus to sustain the default status of “migraine.” 🙂 Who knows.

    As awful as it is, I enjoy these weeks as a welcomed reprieve and often say that I would be sick every day of my life if it meant the end of my migraines. Maybe we should all forego the flu shot…(kidding, of course!) 🙂

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    I have considered going to hang out a daycare and touching all the toys… (kidding as well).

  • LJmigraine
    4 years ago

    I am the same as you when I have a cold – much better, feel like myself again, and no migraine. Very strange. I’ve never heard of anyone else experiencing this until now!
    I’ve also had a ‘frozen shoulder’ which was intensely painful, and had far fewer migraines for the most painful months of that. As excruciating as the shoulder pain was, I preferred it to the migraine pain.
    When I had proper flu, I had the worst headache/vomiting ever.

    I agree, this response should tell researchers something about the mechanisms of migraine in some people.

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    I’m not alone!!

  • Sara
    4 years ago

    It is interesting how things are so different for each of us. I have intractable migraine (since August) with prolonged aura without infarction and comorbid fibromyalgia/CFS and being sick makes things infinitely worse for me. Just a thought (that you’ve probably mulled over) but are you drinking a lot more water when you have a cold? Might be something. I am getting over a stomach virus right now and the dehydration is pissing off my migraine brain. Trying to keep up with pedialyte but no luck so far.

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    It is remarkable how differently we respond to circumstances and treatments. I guess this is partly why the disease is so difficult to treat.

  • Johan Karlsen
    4 years ago

    I have the same experience. But for me it happens only during the summer. I live in Norway and we have only 2 months …ish

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    Glad you get some relief 🙂

  • GinaD
    4 years ago

    I have also experienced a bizarre lessening of migraine when experiencing other illnesses and pain conditions (dental, back pain flair-up, etc.) When I’ve told this to other people (non-migraneurs) they tell me it’s because I’m focusing my attention on something else — as if I had a choice in the matter. And I’ve also experienced the ambivalence/guilt of feeling happy/relieved that I was migraine-free while sick with some other illness, and almost sorry when that illness passed and I was back to “normal.” I try to be grateful though that I’m not dealing with the usual severe migraine on top of whatever xyz illness/pain I have at the time.

  • Anna Eidt author
    4 years ago

    It’s not surprising to me anymore, but still irritating that others immediately reach for a fix. I guess it’s human nature, but sometimes things just are what they are…and we don’t always have a choice in the matter.

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