When it comes to allergies, most of us think they’re no big deal. A major inconvenience, yes — especially when we live in pollen-coated areas like central Texas — but nothing really serious. Just a health issue to live with and treat as well as we can. For those of us with migraine, however, this attitude may be harmful.
Most of us with migraine disease are aware of the common misdiagnosis of migraine as a “sinus headache,” but few are aware of the real impact allergies can have on migraine.
For starters, allergic rhinitis (i.e. allergies and hay fever) is comorbid with migraine, especially in older adults. In fact, one study found that people with allergies have an eight-fold increased chance of also having migraine, compared to controls without allergies. This was a particularly strong correlation with increasing age, with participants over 40 more likely to experience the comorbidity. Researchers speculate this connection may be due to similar inflammatory reactions in the body.
Allergies and hay fever also make migraine symptoms worse
Research indicates that those of us with migraines who also live with allergies and hay fever have more frequent head pain than people with migraine who don’t have rhinitis — by as much as 33 percent. Those of us who have unusual allergies (think: cigarette smoke and perfume) in addition to common allergies like pet dander and tree pollen have it even worse. Research suggests those with “mixed rhinitis” are 45 percent more likely to experience more frequent head pain than migraine patients without allergies and a 60 percent greater risk that their attacks will be severe.
If allergies trigger more frequent and more disabling migraine attacks, then it is time those of us with migraine start taking our allergies seriously — a reality I had to learn about 18 months ago when we adopted a puppy.
New puppy, more migraine attacks
Normally, I’m allergic to many things — ragweed, perfume, cigarette smoke, cats, and cantaloupe — but I’m not allergic to dogs. The one breed I am allergic to, however, is the German Shepherd. I’m not sure why this breed is the one I can’t tolerate, but it’s been true my entire life. Imagine my surprise, then, when the rescue Corgi/Dachshund we adopted turned out to be 50 percent Corgi/Dachshund and 50 percent German Shepherd.
Within days of bringing her home, the house was covered in hair, even the rooms I never allowed the dog to enter. My swollen eyes itched. My nose alternated frustratingly between a constant drip and congestion so severe it whistled. And, my migraines grew worse. Much worse.
I went from having a migraine attack every few days to having one every day. Unaware of the research between allergies and migraine, I didn’t immediately associate the dog with my increased symptoms. I just knew things were getting worse so I went back to my neurologist, hoping for help with the worsening cycle.
I tried new medications. I meditated more. Nothing helped. When I came across the information on allergies and migraine, everything clicked into place. It was the dog!
Once I began aggressively treating my allergies, my migraine attacks went back to occurring every few days instead of every day. If you’re struggling with allergies and you’ve seen an increase in migraine symptoms or frequency, too, you might try the same. Treating the allergies may be one way to manage migraine.