Can Allergies Cause Headaches?
Here's what you need to know about allergy-related headaches, including the symptoms, location, treatment, and more.
Can allergies cause headaches?
If you’re having miserable hay fever symptoms and your head also hurts, it’s plausible to assume you could have an allergy headache. After all, a drippy nose, sneezing fits, and itchy eyes are stressful enough to give anyone a headache.
But are allergies really to blame for your headache? Since headaches happen for all sorts of reasons, it can be tough to know whether your pain is necessarily due to a particularly nasty ragweed season or something else.
Whatever the cause, you just want to do whatever it takes to feel better fast so you can get on with your day.
Here’s what you need to know about allergies and headaches and how to get rid of them.
Could you have seasonal allergies?
When trying to figure out if you have an allergy headache, it helps to know if you even have allergies, what causes them, and what kind of reactions they cause.
It certainly wouldn’t be rare to have seasonal allergies since they affect 19.2 million adults in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Allergies occur when harmless substance such as pollen or pet dander cause the immune systems to overreact and produce immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies, histamine, and other chemicals. These bring about some pretty miserable symptoms in the nose, throat, ears, sinuses, or skin.
It’s easy to assume you have hay fever, especially if you start sneezing during ragweed season. Allergy testing can help you know for sure, and identify the specific allergens that are causing your symptoms.
You can develop an allergy at any age and if allergies run in your family, your chance of having them is higher. The most common hay fever culprits are:
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What is an allergy headache?
An allergy headache is harder to define than you might think, and there is no formal definition, according to the National Headache Foundation. In fact, the relationship between allergies and headaches can be a bit murky.
For example, people who have migraines often blame certain foods, but the chemicals that evoke headaches are a bodily function, not an allergic reaction. (Although certain foods can increase migraine risk for some people.) Others who have hay fever might blame ragweed for their headaches, but those symptoms show up in the nose, throat, eyes, and ears and don’t necessarily cause headaches in everyone.
“You will notice headache isn’t a major symptom of environmental allergies,” says Wade Cooper, DO, and director of the Headache and Neuropathic Pain Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
There are many types of headaches, and each type can result in pain in specific areas. For example, a tension headache feels like your entire head is wrapped in pain, whereas the pain from an allergy-induced headache is typically on the top of your head and face.
“Environmental allergies may trigger a migraine headache, which may give people the sense that they have a true allergy headache,” Dr. Cooper says. And some people blame their sinuses.
“The theory is that inflammation in the sinuses causes [a] feeling of pain which is interpreted as headaches, yet there must be inflammation seen in the sinuses,” says Dennis M. Tang, MD, an ENT at Cedars-Sinai Otolaryngology, in Los Angeles.
However, the majority of patients don’t have sinus inflammation.
People who suffer from hay fever allergies are far more likely to have a migraine than people who don’t have allergies, Dr. Cooper says. That’s because they already have extensive nasal inflammation (rather than sinus inflammation) that can irritate the brain’s lining, provoking a migraine.
“In my experience, environmental allergies frequently trigger migraine attacks, which is why the combination of allergies and headaches are common reasons to see the doctor,” says Dr. Cooper.
Allergy headache symptoms and location
As mentioned, an allergy-induced headache might cause pain on the top of your head and on your face.
Since allergy-induced headaches are primarily associated with migraines and sinuses, you’re probably going to have symptoms related to those, too.
Let’s break down the symptoms of migraines and sinusitis to help you determine which one may be related to an allergy headache.
“A migraine attack lasts between four hours and three days,” says Dr. Cooper. The pain is so debilitating that lying down in a dark and quiet place may be all you can tolerate.
Another clue you’re having an allergy migraine is if you experience an aura, a type of warning by way of visual symptoms, such as flashing lights, distorted shapes, and figures. But some may have symptoms they can feel like tingling or pins-and-needles sensation in an arm or leg.
Common symptoms of a migraine include:
- Throbbing headache on one side or both sides of the head
- Runny nose with clear discharge
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Sensitivity to light or sounds
- Scalp tenderness or pressure
Allergy-related sinus headaches
People allergic to pollen, mold, dust mites, or pet dander are at a higher risk of developing a sinus infection. That’s due to the nasal and sinus passages that become inflamed, congested, and swollen in response to the offending allergens.
As painful as a sinus headache is with a sinus infection, it isn’t a major sign used by doctors for diagnostic purposes.
“The major criteria for rhinosinusitis involve nasal obstruction, nasal drainage, loss of smell, and facial pressure,” says Arthur W. Wu, MD, co-director of the Cedars-Sinai Sinus Center in Los Angeles.
“The minor criteria include headache, ear fullness or pain, dental pain, cough, and bad breath,” Dr. Wu says.
When to see the doctor
If headaches from hay fever, allergies, or any unknown cause interfere with your day, you should see a doctor.
“It’s not OK to lose time away from your family, work, or whatever is important to you because of headaches,” says Dr. Cooper.
“Your doctor can help you get those days back, and it starts with you letting them know about your allergies and headaches.”
Meanwhile, start keeping a headache diary to track the characteristics of your headaches. It can provide clues to determine the type of headaches you have and the best course of action to relieving them.
Treatments for allergy headaches
It’s not uncommon for a doctor to diagnose someone with both environmental allergies and migraines, Dr. Cooper says.
“Both allergies and migraine use the same kinds of immune cells, almost like it’s the same problem, just different parts of the body,” says Dr. Cooper.
Because of this similarity, medications that reduce allergy symptoms (antihistamines, oral and nasal decongestants, nasal steroid sprays, allergy shots, or prescription sublingual tablets) may also help prevent or lessen a migraine attack.
But if you still get a throbbing migraine, Dr. Cooper says several medications effectively stop a migraine quickly with few side effects.
Triptans are common fast-acting prescription medicines available in tablets, injections, nasal sprays, and sublingual tablets. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, Aleve, Motrin, and Advil, or drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol), may help soothe less severe migraines.
Some people find a combination of aspirin, acetaminophen, and caffeine in over-the-counter medications like Excedrin and other brands is more effective than NSAIDs alone.
Allergy-related sinusitis treatment involves treating allergy symptoms, too.
“Most physicians will start with intranasal corticosteroid sprays and antihistamines. Other additional therapies can include decongestants and other anti-inflammatory medications,” says Dr. Wu.
To treat headache symptoms, Dr. Wu says NSAIDs or nasal decongestants such as pseudoephedrine are options.
But be sure you get clearance from your doctor before taking decongestants if you have certain medical conditions such as heart disease or high blood pressure, as certain decongestants can raise blood pressure.
Tips for avoiding allergy-triggered headaches
You might be able to cut down the number of allergy-related headaches by avoiding the allergens that trigger hay fever.
Understandably, it’s not always convenient or feasible to dodge allergens entirely, but here are some steps you can take to keep the allergens out of your house and away from your nose:
- Keep an eye on the pollen count in your area or where you’ll be traveling.
- Keep the windows in the house and car closed during peak pollen counts.
- Use air conditioning instead of fans in windows, which draw in mold and pollen.
- Run a dehumidifier in damp areas of the home to block mold growth.
- Wear a surgical or N95 mask to keep from breathing in pollen and molds, pet dander, or while doing household chores.
- Wear a hat and sunglasses to keep pollen from getting on your hair and in your eyes.
- Leave your shoes by the door when you come inside.
- Shower and wash your body and hair of pollens.
- Wash clothes that you wore outside before wearing them again.
- Wash bed linens frequently to help keep indoor and outdoor allergens away.
- Vacuum with a HEPA filter and/or mop floors frequently.
- Use damp microfiber cloths to remove household dust.
Next, find out if your allergy medications are working—or not.
- Wade Cooper, doctor of osteopathic medicine and director of the Headache and Neuropathic Pain Program at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
- Dennis M. Tang, MD, Cedars-Sinai Otolaryngology, Los Angeles, California.
- Arthur W. Wu, MD, co-director of the Cedars-Sinai Sinus Center, and associate professor of surgery, Los Angeles, California.
- CDC: "Allergies and Hayfever"
- National Headache Foundation: "Seasonal Allergies or Chronic Headache? Here are the Differences."
- American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: "Allergy Facts"
- European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology: "Causes of headache in patients with a primary diagnosis of sinus headache"
- National Headache Foundation: "Allergy and Migraine"
- National Headache Foundation: "Aura"