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Migraine and air pollution: what is the link?

Stress, hormonal changes, and certain types of foods can all trigger migraine attacks. Some migraine sufferers find that environmental conditions, including air quality, also affect their symptoms.

For people living with migraine, identifying the triggers that cause migraine episodes can be a helpful way to minimize the disruptive nature of the condition.

In this article, we look at the role of pollution in migraine, including how it can trigger attacks and what people can do to prevent them.

With more and more of the world’s population living in urban areas, there is growing interest in the effects of air pollution on human health, including migraine attacks.

Compared to other aspects of health, such as heart and lung disease, the role of pollution in migraine is less clear.

Studies by researchers in Taiwan and South Korea found that higher levels of certain types of air pollutants – tiny chemical particles called particulates – were associated with an increase in the number of people seeking medical care for migraine. , especially during warm periods.

The Taiwanese study, however, found no link between airborne particle levels and migraine on cold days. The South Korean study also found that the association between migraine risk and particle levels was weaker on days with lower temperatures.

In contrast, a Boston-based study found that higher levels of air pollution were associated with an increased likelihood of having a migraine only during the coldest months: October through March.

However, this study specifically looked at the link between migraine and traffic-related gaseous pollutants – such as carbon monoxide and ozone – rather than particulate matter.

These results suggest that although air pollution can trigger migraine attacks, this effect likely depends on both the type of air pollution and air temperature.

The researchers didn’t look directly at the cause of the temperature effects, but they speculate that these are related to other factors that increase the likelihood of migraine episodes, such as humidity or atmospheric pressure.

Weather-related behaviors that affect a person’s exposure to pollutants, such as having windows open or being outdoors, could also have an effect.

Can air pollution cause migraines?

Some research also suggests that exposure to gaseous air pollution may increase the likelihood of developing a migraine in the first place.

In a study 2021 involving more than 360,000 people in northern California, long-term exposure to high levels of nitrogen dioxide and methane was associated with a 2% and 4% increased likelihood of having migraines , respectively.

Exposure to particles did not appear to increase the likelihood of developing a migraine.

Although research on the role of pollution in migraine attacks is limited, some experts believe that oxidative stress may be to blame.

Oxidative stress occurs when reactive oxygen species build up in cells and the body’s antioxidant defense systems do not properly remove them. Oxidative stress causes chemical changes in the brain that can increase the sensitivity and excitability of neurons, which can lead to a migraine attack.

All major types of air pollutants, including particulates and gaseous pollutants, can cause oxidative stress, but there is a lack of evidence to support a direct relationship between air pollution, oxidative stress, and migraine.

Migraine experiences may vary, but there are common patterns in symptoms, triggers, and treatments. The studies above suggest that although air pollution may contribute to migraine attacks, it is not the most common trigger.

If someone suspects that air pollution may be triggering migraines, they can try keeping a headache diary to track their migraine symptoms and possible triggers.

People can use services like AirNow from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to track air quality and levels of various air pollutants, including ozone and particulate matter.

If air pollution seems to be a trigger, people can take steps to avoid a migraine attack by:

  • limit their time outdoors
  • keep the windows closed
  • use an air filter to improve indoor air quality

According to the American Migraine Foundation, up to a third of migraine sufferers believe that changes in weather or other environmental factors trigger some of their attacks. Here are some examples of other possible environmental migraine triggers:

  • air pressure
  • Temperature
  • sunshine
  • strong winds
  • humidity

Research exploring the link between migraine and pollution is still limited. Much remains to be learned about the potential link, but a few studies have found a link between air pollution and migraine attacks.

Some migraine sufferers may find that their symptoms appear or worsen when exposed to high levels of air pollution, including both particulates and gaseous emissions.

For these people, monitoring air quality and taking steps to limit time spent outdoors can help prevent migraine attacks.

If migraine symptoms persist despite reduced pollution exposure, other environmental triggers could be responsible. A headache diary can help a person track their symptoms and triggers. It may be helpful to share this information with a medical professional when discussing migraine attack triggers.