Migraine Triggers

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2020

A migraine trigger is anything that contributes to a migraine attack. Being exposed to a trigger increases the chance that a person with migraine will have a migraine.

The hard thing about migraine triggers is that what triggers one person may not trigger another. Some people only need 1 trigger, while others need a combination of triggers before a migraine occurs. Plus, one person may be more or less sensitive to certain triggers at different times in their life.

What are triggers?

Triggers are thought to cause a series of events in the brain of people with migraine that leads to migraine symptoms. The unpredictable nature of triggers can make some people with migraine anxious between attacks, and trying to avoid triggers can disrupt daily life.1

What are common migraine triggers?

Literally anything can trigger an attack in someone with migraine, but the most common migraine triggers include:2,3

  • Stress
  • Changes in sleep patterns such as getting too little or too much sleep
  • Changes in routine
  • Missing meals
  • Hormone changes due to menstruation or menopause
  • Caffeine in coffee, tea, or soda, or caffeine withdrawal
  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Changes in the weather, especially changes in barometric pressure
  • Certain foods, especially those with nitrates, tyramine, or aspartame
  • Dehydration
  • Light, including bright sunshine and indoor fluorescent lights, or glare
  • Smells like perfumes, chemicals, gasoline, bleach, or strong food odors
  • Medicine overuse or using your acute migraine drugs too often
  • Computer use
  • Exercise or sex

One study found that 3 out of 4 people with migraine had an average of 7 known triggers. Stress is the most common trigger that people report themselves. In fact, 7 out of 10 people named stress as their No. 1 trigger. Women often report differences in their triggers based on the timing of their menstrual cycle.1,2

Some studies suggest that triggers may differ in people with migraine aura versus those without, but this is not clear. One study found that food triggers were more common in migraine than in tension headaches.1

How can triggers be managed?

The first step to manage migraine triggers is to build a personal migraine triggers list. To develop your list, you must first keep a migraine journal that lists detailed information on each and every migraine attack.

A diary can help you better understand the things in your environment that trigger migraine. This record may also help you learn which symptoms are part of the prodrome stage, such as mood changes or food cravings, and which ones are part of the aura or head pain phase.1

Eventually, you may be able to notice a pattern to when your migraine occurs, what you were doing or eating before each attack, and how long the symptoms last. Learning your triggers may help you avoid some, but probably not all, of the things that trigger your migraines.

A migraine diary may also play an important role in finding the best treatments for you or, at least, help you recognize the early stages of an attack when treatments work best.

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