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No matter what causes a "sick headache," headache pain can be hard to treat once it starts. For millions of headache sufferers, it's far more satisfactory to stop a headache before it starts. Here are 10 surprising headache triggers and how to avoid them.

Medical science does not yet know precisely what causes headaches. Sometimes a headache is triggered by changes in the blood vessels that bring oxygen to the brain or in the muscles supporting the head, and sometimes, as is the cases with migraine, a headache is caused by changes in the brain itself. 

No matter what triggers a headache, it is always better to stop headache pain before it starts. Here are 10 surprising headache triggers and how to avoid them, beginning with common triggers for migraine.

1. Temperature changes.

The arrival of a sudden cold front or an unexpected spell of heat, or sometimes just walking outside a heated room into the cold or moving from an air conditioned room into the heat can trigger a migraine headache. You can't change the weather, but you can make weather changes less a trigger for migraines.

How? The surprising way to deal with temperature changes for your brain is to avoid temperature changes on your skin. Putting on a pair gloves, a scarf, and head co+vering may prevent migraines in the winter. Avoiding direct exposure of your skin to bright, burning sunlight in summer may also prevent migraine pain.

2. Strong scents.

Any kind of strong odor, whether pleasant or unpleasant, can set off migraine pain in about 45% of people who have migraine and about 15% of people who have tension headaches. People who do not sense an aura or prodrome of non-painful symptoms before migraine pain tend to be more sensitive to scents. Paint, paint thinner, perfumes, food, and flowers are common culprit. The way to minimize the effects of strong scents on migraine pain is, of course, to avoid exposure, but also to imagine a different scent when migraine pain is beginning to come on. Imagining a scent "distracts" the brain from the offending scent, sometimes long enough to reduce or eliminate migraine pain.

3. Cheese.

Cheese, especially aged Swiss, Parmesan, cheddar, and blue cheese, is a common trigger for migraine. The offending substance in cheese is a chemical called tyramine, which is produced from the amino acid tyrosine during the fermentation process. Any kind of spoiled protein food, especially spoiled beef or pork, also can can trigger an attack. It also helps to avoid sour cream, yogurt, fish sauce, oyster sauce, shrimp paste, fermented soybean products (such as teriyaki sauce, tempeh, and miso), sauerkraut, and pickles

Some cheeses are relatively low in tyramine. These include ricotta, cottage cheese, cream cheese, and Neufchâtel, which usually are not problematic if eaten in moderation.

4. Cold cuts.

Cold cuts and luncheon meats also contain tyramine, but they are even more problematic for migraine sufferers because they are cured with nitrates. Salami, pastrami, bologna, prosciutto, and bacon can all trigger migraine attacks. Cured ham, however, is sufficiently low in tyramine that in small amounts it may not be a problem.

5. Sunlight, sleep deprivation, and fatigue.

Pulling an all-nighter is a sure way to trigger a migraine the next morning. Far more than tension and cluster headache sufferers, migraine sufferers are sensitive to sunlight, not getting enough sleep, and not getting enough rest. Making sure to schedule time for sleep, especially on heavy exercise days, will reduce the risk of migraines.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Graff-Radford SB, Teruel A. Cluster headache and obstructive sleep apnea: are they related disorders? Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2009 Apr,13(2):160-3. Review.
  • Schulman E, McGeeney BE. Current Concepts in Refractory Migraine. Curr Treat Options Neurol. 2012 Nov 13. [Epub ahead of print]
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