16 'Triggers' That Can Cause Migraine Symptoms to Flare
Any medical information included is based on a personal experience. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.
When I was a kid, I would get migraines at school almost daily. They came on in the afternoon, after I had been outside in the Texas heat for gym, and I would spend the last few hours of the day with my head down, trying to avoid the pain and nausea the fluorescent lights brought on. Back then, I knew I had migraines, but it never really occurred to me that they might be triggered by things like light or heat. Now, as an adult, learning more about the disease and my body as well as discovering my “triggers” has become a really important part of managing my migraines.
Of course, knowing what can set your symptoms off is by no means an exact science, nor is it a cure. Migraine symptoms can be unpredictable, and may flare even if you were avoiding your triggers and doing everything “right.” Plus, it’s not always possible to avoid your triggers. If eating a certain food sets off a migraine, you can (usually) do your best to just not eat that food. But other factors, such as changes in weather, stress or bright lights, aren’t always in your control.
Every individual is unique, and is affected differently by migraine – especially since there are multiple types of migraine, and a wide array of symptoms and side effects that can accompany the disease. So it follows that everyone may have different triggers (and some may even find that they have very few, or none at all). But if you’re wondering what types of things can set off others’ migraine flares, this might be a good place to start.
We asked our Mighty community to share the “triggers” they’ve discovered that cause their migraine symptoms to flare. Becoming familiar with your body and your condition might not make your migraines go away entirely, but it might be helpful in managing your care or reducing the number of migraine attacks you experience. If you can relate to any of the following, know you are not alone.
Here’s what our community shared with us:
“Stress. It makes already difficult times so much harder and more painful.” – Sarah G.
“Post-stress – like you are super stressed leading into exams, then once you’re done – bam, you get hit with a post-stress migraine.” – Laura C.
“A lack of sleep plus stress. As a mom, it can make some days unbearable.” – Kari D.
“I’ve lost a lot of friends because I can’t go out and be social and do the things most people don’t even think twice about. Like having a beer or a glass of wine at dinner. If I touch alcohol, I will be in pain. People my age love to party. I just stay home.” – Amélie J.
“Alcohol of any kind. I basically have a one drink limit… and under the circumstances, I generally don’t do that.” – Kevin T.
3. Flashing Lights
“Flashing lights. This includes strobe lights at concerts, sun flashing from behind trees, glares off shiny surfaces or even slashing lights in movies.” – Taylor M.
“Flashing lights, shadows while moving in a car, loud noises, florescent lights, quick movement.” – Mackenzie P.
4. Strong Chemicals
“Strong cleaning supplies really make my life hard. I’ve spent a lot of time searching for more natural products and even bring the stuff I use to work to help avoid triggers there.” – Alex T.
“Chemical fumes… I had to leave my last job because every little odor set my migraines off… now I can’t even fuel up at a gas station if they have recently had their tanks refilled… stopped using bleach in the laundry… no one realizes how life-limiting migraines can be.” – Merri E.S.
“Chemical smells almost instantly send me into a moderate or severe flare.” – Ashley A.
5. Weather Changes
“The weather is a huge trigger. Any major changes in the barometric pressure or temperature and I have an almost instant migraine.” – Emily G.
“The weather – as soon as the weather changes from sunny to rainy, colder weather I get migraines.” – Simone D.H.
“When a low pressure center/weather front approaches usually 12 to 24 hours in advance of the weather front.” – Kevin T.
“Weather and change in barometric pressure. I’m pretty good at identifying when a big storm is coming!” – Taylor M.
6. Getting Too Much or Too Little Sleep
“Not getting enough sleep and a lot of stress, I never had a migraine until my third year in college. Ever since then I’ve had migraines, they are so bad I have to stay in bed, I can’t eat or even be awake. I basically knock out and keep sleeping till it goes away. My head pounds so bad I feel dizzy, I get cold shakes and the light hurts sooo bad!” – Alfa R.
“Oversleeping, you know that weekend day when you just want to stay in bed? The longer I do that for, the more likely I am to get a migraine.” – Laura C.
7. Not Eating or Drinking Enough
“Not eating or drinking enough or waiting to long to eat when I’m hungry.” – Simone D.H.
“If I miss meals. When my blood sugar gets too low, I almost always get a migraine. It sucks when you’re with people who don’t eat on a schedule and don’t ‘get’ how important snacks really are for you.” – Alissa L.M.
“Low blood sugar. I have reactive hypoglycemia so when my blood sugar drops too low or too quickly I get a migraine.” – Grace B.
8. Neck/Shoulder Stiffness
“EDS [Ehlers-Danlos syndrome] and dysautonomia is a massive trigger. I have unstable neck (CCI) and this makes the muscles work overtime and gets really stiff to support the neck. This causes most migraines for me. But there’s also: heat, little nutrition, little sleep, stress etc.” – Tessan B.
“Straining my neck.” – Kelsey W.
9. Strong Fragrances
“The smell of cigarettes or cigars. It only takes a few minutes of being around someone who smokes or near the smoke and I have a full blown migraine with nausea and vomiting.” – Jessica F.H.
“Certain smells can give me an instant migraine, especially if I already have a headache (which is most days). I have to be careful what deodorant I use, candles are a big one too, and perfumes can be awful.” – Leesa C.
“Patchouli and musk-based scents automatically trigger a migraine. Along with head pain, eye pressure and a burning sensation in my nasal passage and sinuses, I develop flu-like aches, along with extreme fatigue.” – Selma F.
“The smell of citrus. It instantly causes throbbing and light headedness.” – Tammi T.
“Too much visual or auditory stimulation, such as loud music or movies, flashing lights, large crowds of people talking or moving around me, etc. This makes it difficult to be in large stores or busy restaurants, and going to the movies has to be altogether avoided.” – Danielle H.
“Overstimulation like too many lights on TV [or] being too loud.” – Alyssa D.B.
11. Certain Foods/Drinks
“Aspartame, if I drink something fizzy with aspartame in it I’ll very quickly notice a headache starting that turns into a migraine later on. Always reading fizzy labels now!” – Lauren T.
“Chocolate, lavender — instant migraine. Strong perfumes, yellow cheeses. All of those equal migraine. If not instantly, within minutes.” – Cindy S.D.
“Pretty much everything… but recently I had a lot of MSG when I hadn’t had any in years. That night I woke up with probably one of the worst three migraines of my life.” – Allison P.
“Nitrates, so bacon, lunch meats, pepperoni, etc.” – Meghan T.
“Artificial caramel and almond and hazelnut. Makes [me] incredibly ill and instant migraine. Coffees with those artificial additives and one sip = massive migraine.” – Ellen J.
12. Loud Music
“Deep, loud bass music. Someone can drive by with their bass blasting and I can get an instant migraine. Each boom of the music feels like someone is hitting my brain stem with a sledge hammer. It makes me afraid to drive anywhere, because I don’t know when or where someone is going to have their bass up high.” – Michelle M.H.K.
“Loud noises! I have postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) so when I hear loud noises it automatically makes my heart rate high, anxiety kicks in and then I end up getting a migraine.” – Michelle K.
13. Menstrual Cycle
“My monthlies one week before and I suffer for four days solid.” – Rachel H.
“Heat, stress, menstrual cycle. All three evil.” – Jenny S.
“Heat is my number one trigger. I live in Texas, so I hibernate indoors through spring, summer and most of fall.” – Rae H.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes or five hours, anytime spent in the heat will trigger a migraine.” – Casey K.
15. Emotional Stressors
“Other than weather changes, unexpected bad or sad news can trigger them. I’m not sure the physiological basis for this, but I know it is true for me. When my friend passed away in March very unexpectedly, I cried and then I got a three-day migraine.” – Sarah M.I.
16. Bright Lights
“My biggest trigger is fluorescent lights. They are literally everywhere and almost impossible to avoid. The harsh light they put out can send me into an episode almost instantly.” – Brianna B.
“Bright sunshine coming through window, especially if it reflects off mirrors, sink and taps.” – Debbie K.M.
“Bright florescent lighting kills me every time. Otherwise, I can usually see ‘sparkles’ floating around beforehand and I know a migraine is coming. Yikes.” – Mary D.
To help others in the migraine community cope with the challenges of living with this condition, our Mighty readers have shared what they do to deal with their symptoms. Check out these 12 migraine-soothing products people swear by, and these 18 “hacks” that can make life with migraine easier.