Research suggests that so-called airplane headaches may be a real problem for a small percentage of the roughly two billion annual air travelers. Some medical experts even propose including this phenomenon as a new headache designation.

Airplane headaches most often strike during takeoff and landing. They produce a jabbing pain on the side or front of the head and typically last for 15 to 20 minutes.

To be classified as a true airplane headache, individuals must experience at least two headache episodes during flying and have no evidence of other disorders that could explain the symptoms.

The pain must last less than 20 minutes and include at least two of these features: severe intensity or a pulsating or stabbing quality that's located on only one side of the head or behind the eye.

People who already suffer from headaches may be at greater risk for developing airplane headaches, although they are distinct from migraines and other common types of headaches.

Airplane Headaches Cause Unknown

Medical experts are not entirely sure what causes airplane headaches, although they point to several likely suspects.

The air quality and level of oxygen in plane cabins is poor and the dry air can dehydrate passengers' bodies.

Barometric pressure changes, especially during takeoffs and landings, may also contribute to airplane headaches.

These factors, along with cramped, uncomfortable seating and loud noises may trigger a headache for susceptible individuals.

Experts are also not sure how common airplane headaches are. They may occur more often than we realize if sufferers do not typically report them.

Preventing and Treating Airplane Headaches

While airplane headaches may be painful, they are generally short-lived and do not cause long-term harm.

You can take steps before and during flights to prevent or minimize headaches:

  • Wear comfortable clothing.
  • Use an over-the-counter pain reliever such as acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®) before flying to prevent headaches or to treat headache symptoms.
  • Get up and walk regularly to increase blood circulation.
  • Drink at least eight ounces of water each hour.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • In the days leading up to your flight, take a natural supplement such as feverfew leaf or vitamin B12, which have headache preventative properties.

Craig Kraffert, MD, reviewed this article.



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