Environmental Migraine Triggers

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

Different things in the world around a person with migraine can trigger an attack. Weather changes, strong smells, bright lights, or smoke can all be migraine triggers in some people. These are also called environmental triggers.

These types of triggers can be tough to avoid. Obviously, no one can control the weather or someone wearing heavy perfume. Environmental triggers are also some of the most common ones reported by people with migraine.1

Types of environmental triggers

Nearly anything can be an environmental trigger. However, it is unclear how changes in a person’s surroundings lead to a migraine attack. Some of the most common triggers include:1

  • Weather, including temperature changes, extreme heat, extreme cold, high humidity, dry or dusty conditions, barometric pressure changes, wind, and storms
  • Smells from food, perfume, paint, bleach, and chemicals
  • Loud sounds
  • Air pollution and smoke from cigarettes, cigars, exhaust fumes, and fires
  • Bright or glaring light, fluorescent lights, flashing lights, and computer screens
  • High altitude
  • Travel, including flying, jet lag, or motion
  • Seeing patterns, including stripes, checkerboards, or zigzag lines

Studies have found that people with migraine have an average of 7 triggers, many of them environmental. Strong smells are a trigger for 7 out of 10 people with migraine. Half of the people with migraine report reacting to at least 1 weather change.1

The link between migraine and the environment

Across the world, people with migraine report the same environmental triggers. However, doctors have found little proof about why things like smells, weather, and light trigger migraine.

There are many theories about environmental triggers. For ages, people have said they can “feel” a thunderstorm coming. Doctors believe people who react to light, sound, and smells may have brain changes that make them more sensitive to these triggers.2

Finding your environmental triggers

Learning which changes in the environment trigger your migraine attacks is an important step in managing migraine. To learn what leads to your discomfort, keep a detailed migraine journal. Record details about the weather and your surroundings, including what you were doing, what you see, smell, and how you felt. It would help if you also listed all of your migraine symptoms, how intense these are, and how long each lasts. This will help your doctor find the right treatments for you.

Managing environmental triggers

If you know your triggers, it can be helpful to keep several things on hand when you go out in public, including:3,4

  • Sunglasses or eyeglasses designed to reduce glare or certain wavelengths of light
  • Ear plugs
  • An eye mask to block out bright light

Some lifestyle changes may also help you protect yourself from some environmental triggers, such as:3,4

  • Extra rest before and after travel, especially if you move across time zones
  • Letting friends and coworkers know about your sensitivity to strong smells
  • Keeping your house darker
  • Asking to sit away from windows or fluorescent lights at work
  • Install light bulbs that emit green light, which have been shown to not aggravate migraine

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