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Can a change in weather give me a headache?

Medical myth or hard health truth? We ask the experts to settle common questions we've all wondered about.


I always get terrible headaches in the front of my head before the weather changes. Why is this and what can I do about it?

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You're not alone. Studies have shown that more than 50 per cent of people who suffer with headaches note an association with a change in the weather.

We don't fully understand why headaches increase with weather changes, but it's likely related to a change in the barometric pressure or temperature. In a recent study published in the journal Neurology, there was nearly an 8-per-cent increased risk of developing a headache associated with a 5 C rise in temperature, be it in the cold of winter or the heat of summer. Often patients with headaches feel they can predict a weather change better than their local weatherman.

When it comes to determining what type of headache you have, most sufferers believe they have a sinus headache; they are even more convinced if they happen to have associated allergy symptoms, such as a runny nose or watery eyes. But in many cases, they're wrong.

In a large study looking at patients with self-diagnosed sinus headaches, nearly 90 per cent actually had migraines. Since these patients had not been properly diagnosed, they were taking decongestants, antihistamines or pain relievers, with minimal success.

Nearly 50 per cent of migraine sufferers experience itchy, watery eyes or a runny nose along with their headache, which is often in the forehead region or over the sinuses. Migraine headaches are typically bothersome, with a throbbing or pressure-type pain associated with nausea or intolerance to light and sound, and can really interfere with your ability to do your daily work.

In contrast, true sinus headaches, or rhinosinusitis, are actually far less common and are a result of a sinus infection. They are typically associated with fever, facial pain and a discoloured, thick nasal discharge. Often an antibiotic is helpful.

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For those suffering with headaches, be they triggered by the weather or something else, see your physician or a headache specialist to get an accurate diagnosis so that you can have proper treatment.

Because you can't change the weather, you need to change your approach to managing weather-induced headaches. Occasionally, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories can be helpful, but often prescription medications are required to turn off a headache that has already started or prevent it in the first place. These medications have been specifically developed for migraines or have been proven effective in its treatment and are likely to help the majority of sufferers.

Dr. Christine Lay is the director of the Centre for Headache at Women's College Hospital in Toronto.

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