The winter struggle is real — and if it feels like your headaches have kicked into high gear just in time for the holidays, you’re not alone. Weather-related headaches are more common than you might think, with migraines affecting women three times more often than men. The good news? There are ways to be proactive in preventing future headaches — and in cases where there’s no stopping it, you do have some options for managing the symptoms.
In this instance, since we can’t talk about the physical pain without also considering some possible links to mental health, we’ve enlisted the expert insight of Vancouver-based physician and bestselling author Dr. Jacqueline Fowler, as well as Vancouver-based therapist and mental health professional Alyson Jones, to help us explore the causes of seasonal-related headaches, among other types that typically affect women.
DISCLAIMER: This article is not intended as a substitute for the professional advice of your healthcare practitioner. Always seek medical advice that is specific to you and your situation.
Headaches that affect women: weather-related
According to an article from The Mayo Clinic, some people have a higher sensitivity to seasonal weather shifts and tend to experience headaches as a result. Those affected tend to struggle with extreme temperatures, bright sunlight and barometric pressure changes, to name a few. As a result of fluctuations in the weather, those with this heightened sensitivity may experience imbalances in brain chemicals such as serotonin, which can pave the way for subsequent migraines.
But what can you do about it? Alyson Jones and Dr. Jacqueline Fowler suggest the following:
- Find a quiet place with subdued lighting
- Reduce the stimulus around yourself
- Use a damp, cool cloth or ice pack on your forehead or the back of your neck
- Gently rub the area where you are feeling the pain
Headaches that affect women: atmospheric
Environmental factors can play a role when it comes to headaches. “If we experience pressure changes due to weather, we can get imbalances in our sinus. This can cause congestion and inflammation which then causes headaches,” says Fowler and Jones.
Adds Dr. Fowler, “these pressure changes can also increase blood flow in our head and widen the blood vessels, sending messages through our cerebrovascular system that create pain. Similarly, altitude changes, such as when flying in a plane, are another major trigger for headaches.”
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Headaches that affect women: hormone-related
Hormone levels are often cited as a major contributor to headaches in women. As Fowler notes, “estrogen is an essential hormone for the female reproductive system, and fluctuations in this hormone can trigger headaches. Women are particularly vulnerable to estrogen fluctuations during the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause — which helps to explain why more women than men suffer from headaches.”
Fowler breaks down hormone-related headaches even further:
- During adolescence, when estrogen is being released, the frequency, duration and severity of headaches increases
- During pregnancy, estrogen levels rise to help the uterus transfer nutrients to the baby and then the estrogen levels drop after the birth
- During menopause, estrogen levels can fluctuate dramatically as the body prepares to shut down the ovaries
In addition, certain oral contraceptives can alter your hormone levels — some women find that a steady estrogen level provided in some oral contraceptives can reduce headache frequency.
Headaches that affect women: tension- and stress-related
“Tension headaches are the most common type of headache,” Jones explains. “The exact cause of this type of headache is not known, but there are a number of triggers associated with it. These headaches can result in feelings of pain and tension in the back, neck, around the eyes and in the jaw.” When asked what prevention preventative options are available for tension- and stress-related headaches, Jones suggests good posture, exercise and taking steps to reduce stress levels, as well as proper hydration and a healthy diet.
Some of the major triggers to be aware of when it comes to tension and stress headaches, according to our experts:
- Muscle strain
- Eye strain and glare
- Too much caffeine
- Food sensitivities
- Lack of exercise
- Grinding of teeth at night
- Chronic pain conditions
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Headaches that affect women: primary
According to this study, a primary headache is one that encompasses migraines, tension-type headaches, cluster headaches and persistent headaches. Your headache is generally considered to be a “primary” one if any of the following applies:
- These headaches are common in your family
- You’ve had it for many months or years
- You do not suffer from other health conditions which contribute to the headaches
These headaches are often triggered by weather, food, hormones and surrounding sensitivities (light, sounds, etc.).
As far as seeking help for your headaches, Fowler and Jones both note that, while headaches are common and usually do not require medical attention, if you’re concerned you should contact your doctor. Typically, you can expect your doctor to do a physical exam, ask you questions about frequency and symptoms and assess your overall health and lifestyle. High or increasing frequency of headaches, consistent self-medication for pain management and impacted quality of life are just a few instances where you should see your doctor.
Adds Fowler, “if you are experiencing sudden and severe headaches, headaches accompanied by a high fever, symptoms of confusion, vision impairment, numbness and trouble speaking, headaches following a recent head injury, or headaches that worsen even after rest and pain medication, seek prompt medical attention.”
Headaches that affect women: migraines
Widely considered to be the most difficult type of headache to deal with — and revealed by research as the sixth most disabling disease in the world — migraine headaches are described by The Cleveland Clinic as a neurological disease with the potential to cause debilitating pain. At the onset, sufferers will usually feel an intense throbbing sensation on one side of the head, worsened and intensified by surrounding lights, sounds and physical activity.
Headaches that affect women: sinus
Another common headache that is often influenced by seasonal shifts, sinus headaches are ones which can result in pain in the forehead, the top of your head, cheeks, eyes and, most often, the nose. The main causes of this form of headache are nasal congestion, blockage from seasonal allergies or an infection leading to congestion of the sinuses.
What can women do about their frequent headaches?
Ultimately, headaches come in all shapes and forms and can vary significantly in severity from one sufferer to another. If you find your headaches are becoming more frequent, are beginning to disrupt your day-to-day life or are causing you pain and discomfort that is abnormal and/or hard to manage, you should seek the advice of your qualified healthcare practitioner for the next steps in getting some treatment and relief.
Similarly, and of equal importance, is understanding that the root cause of your headaches may require some exploration and treatment under the guidance of a mental health professional. Tension headaches, for example, are most commonly triggered by physical and emotional stress. As Jones explains, “if you’re feeling a lot of stress in your life, a therapist can assist you in looking for ways to decrease your stress and practice self-care. This includes mindfulness techniques, which can be very helpful.”
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