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Environmental migraine triggers

Different factors in the environment – some which the migraine sufferer is unable to control – may lead to a migraine attack. As with many issues related to migraines, it is unclear how these changes in the surroundings lead to migraines. Some researchers believe that people with environmentally-induced migraines are more sensitive to influences in the atmosphere. Changes in the environment have also been blamed on allergies, pain and fatigue.

How do weather changes cause migraines

For ages, people have reported being able to “feel” an oncoming thunderstorm. This, researchers believe, is a result of a buildup of positive ions in the air which may raise the body’s serotonin. Serotonin is known to be linked to migraines. There are also people who experience seasonal migraines, which means they have far more migraines during certain times of the year.

Types of environmental triggers

  • Weather changes including: temperature changes, extreme heat or extremely cold weather, humidity, barometric pressure changes and storms
  • Odors, pollution and smells including: smog, cigarette smoke, perfumes and chemical odors
  • Lights, such as: bright lights or glaring lights, fluorescent lights, flashing lights or screens
  • High altitude
  • Flying, jet lag, travel or motion
  • Dusty conditions
  • Dry conditions
  • Patterns, including: stripes, checkers or zigzag lines

A 2008 study of 200 migraine sufferers found that 74 percent of female migraine sufferers and 45 percent of males named environmental factors as a migraine trigger. The average sufferer named three environmental factors that led to migraine attacks. In the same study, 35 percent of patients counted smell as a trigger, while 26 percent blamed air conditioning, 14 percent pointed to the sun and 11 percent named cigarette smoke.

Coping with environmental migraine triggers

Learning which changes in the environment might trigger your migraine attacks is an important step in managing your migraines. To learn what leads to your discomfort, keep a detailed migraine journal. Write down information about your surroundings, including what you see, smell and how you feel. Be sure to jot down information on weather-related factors and what you were doing before the migraine arose. Also keep tabs on all of your migraine symptoms. This journal will be invaluable as you seek treatment from a migraine specialist.


Written by: Otesa Miles | Last review date: November 2010
UC Berkely Migraine Triggers