5 Surprising Headache Triggers

An estimated 45 million Americans suffer from headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation. While common headache triggers—such as stress, eye strain, and hormonal shifts—are fairly well-known, there are some other headache-causing culprits that you might not suspect.

  1. Perfume. This not only includes women's perfume, but also scented laundry detergent, soaps, shampoos, hand lotions, household cleaners, air fresheners, candles, and other strong odors (good or bad). Medical experts say that the strong odors in these products activate the nose's nerve cells, which stimulate the nerve system associated with headaches.

  2. Weather. Studies show that those who are prone to headaches are especially attuned to changes in barometric pressure, rising temperatures, high humidity, lightning, and cloudy skies. This is because the meteorological shifts are thought to trigger chemical and electrical changes in the brain that irritate nerves, causing head pain.

  3. Headbands, ponytails and tight hair-dos. Tightly pulled hair can irritate the muscle system of your scalp. While the muscle groups around your scalp don't have pain fibers, their connective tissues do. For this reason, tight-fitting hats and heavy earrings are also headache culprits.

  4. Hunger. When people diet, fast, or skip lunch, they have a higher incidence of headaches. Some experts believe that low blood sugar stimulates nerve pathways that bring on headaches, but the exact mechanism is unclear.

  5. Sex. These are called "coital headaches." The reason for them, experts say, is most likely due to pressure building up in the head and neck muscles during sexual activity.

Learning about these five surprising headache triggers and what you can do to stop your pain before it starts can make a big difference in your quality of life. See below for tips on how to keep your headache at bay.

What to Do To Avoid the Onset of a Headache

  • Avoid perfumes, strong household cleansers, air fresheners, fragranced soaps and shampoos. Instead, buy unscented laundry detergent, soaps, lotions, deodorants, etc.
  • Keep a headache diary to record your symptoms related to weather conditions. This will help you piece together your patterns. Mark W. Green, M.D., director of headache medicine at Columbia University, suggests pre-treating with 400 milligrams of ibuprofen a day or two before expected weather changes (that have been shown to give you headaches). You can also try putting an ice compress on your eyes in the morning on these days..
  • Loosen your hair-do. Researchers have found that the simple act of loosening your ponytail can decrease headache pain within 30 minutes, and, in some cases, instantly. Also, save tight up-dos for nights out when you won't be wearing them for long.
  • Eat several small meals a day to keep your blood sugar on an even keel. Also, be aware that sugar headaches may occur when you binge on sweets on an empty stomach. Instead, balance a protein with a complex carbohydrate, such as fish and brown rice, or a snack of whole-wheat toast with almond butter.
  • In order to avoid a coital headache, experts such as Roshini Raj, MD, attending physician at NYU Medical Center/Tisch Hospital in New York City, suggest easing into sexual activity and pacing yourself. Additionally, you can pre-treat a sex headache with ibuprofen or naproxen.

Note: If you heed these tips, but still suffer from moderate, severe, or frequent headaches more than twice a week, consult your doctor.


Mayo Clinic Staff. Common Headache Types. MayoClinic.com. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/headache-types/HE00014. Accessed Marh 12, 2010.

Potter, A. Surprising Things that Give You Headaches. Health Magazine. Jan. 16, 2008. http://www.cnn.com/2008/HEALTH/conditions/01/16/healthmag.headaches/index.html. Accessed March 12, 2010.