10 surprising headache triggers

It's not just stress and nasty colds that cause headaches. Cleaning your home or sleeping in late can cause them too. We reveal 10 headache triggers and how to fix them.

1. Relaxing after stress

You put in 10-hour days from Monday to Friday and you feel fine, only to wake up after a lie-in on Saturday with a pounding headache. Why is that?

It’s because as the tension of the week subsides, your levels of stress hormones drop, which causes a rapid release of neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical messengers). These send out impulses to blood vessels to constrict and then dilate, which causes a headache.

How to fix it: Avoid the temptation to sleep-in at weekends. More than eight hours' sleep at a time can bring on a headache. Introduce some relaxation time, such as a yoga class, into your working week rather than squeezing it all into the weekend.

2. Pent-up anger

When you’re angry, muscles in the back of your neck and scalp tense up, causing a tight band-like sensation around your head. This is a sign of a tension headache.

How to fix it: When you start feeling angry, breathe deeply and slowly. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. This should relax your head and neck muscles.

Read more about how to control your anger.

3. Poor posture

Poor posture causes tension in your upper back, neck and shoulders, which can lead to a headache. Typically, the pain throbs in the base of the skull and sometimes flashes into the face, especially the forehead.

How to fix it: Avoid sitting or standing in one position for a long period. Sit up straight and support your lower back. Consider using a special headset if you spend a lot of time on the phone, as holding a handset between your shoulder and head can strain muscles and cause headaches.

You could also see a physical therapist such as an osteopath or Alexander technique practitioner. They may be able to help you identify and correct any posture problems.

Read more about osteopathy and the Alexander technique.

4. Your perfume

If you think housework is giving you a headache, you could be right. Household cleaners, along with perfumes and fragranced air fresheners, contain chemicals that can bring on headaches.

How to fix it: If you’re susceptible to headaches brought on by certain smells, avoid heavy perfumes and strong-smelling soaps, shampoos and conditioners. Use fragrance-free air fresheners and household cleaners, and keep your doors and windows open as much as possible at home. If a colleague’s perfume is bothering you, put a fan on your desk at work.

5. Bad weather

If you’re prone to getting headaches, you could find that grey skies, high humidity, rising temperatures and storms can all bring on head pain.

Pressure changes that cause weather changes are thought to trigger chemical and electrical changes in the brain. This irritates nerves, leading to a headache.

How to fix it: There’s not much you can do to change the weather. However, by looking at the forecast you can predict when you’re likely to have a headache and take a preventive painkiller a day or two in advance.

Check the weather forecast here.

6. Grinding teeth

Grinding your teeth at night (the medical name is bruxism) makes your jaw muscle contract causing a dull headache.

How to fix it: Your dentist can fit you with a mouth guard to protect your teeth while you sleep. They cost around £50.

Read more about teeth grinding.

7. Bright lights

Bright lights and glare, especially if flickering, can induce migraines. This is because bright and flickering lights boost the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, which then activate the migraine centre.

How to fix it: Sunglasses are great at reducing light intensity and you can wear them inside and outside. Polarised lenses can also help to reduce glare.

At work, adjust your computer monitor or attach a glare screen. You may be able to turn off certain lights or move them. If you can't, change where you sit in the office. Fluorescent lighting tends to flicker, so if you’re able to, substitute it with some other form of lighting.

8. Your packed lunch

Your turkey and cheese sandwich and small bar of dark chocolate might be a tasty lunch, but beware of the headache that could follow it. All these foods contain chemicals that can bring on a migraine. Other culprits include aged cheeses like stilton and brie, diet fizzy drinks, and processed meats and fish.

How to fix it: Keep a migraine trigger diary and once you suspect a certain food may be the cause of your headaches, eliminate it from your diet for a couple of months to see if you get fewer headaches.

If you're concerned about avoiding any food-related trigger factor, see your GP or practice nurse or ask to be referred to a dietician for specialist advice.

Remember to eat regularly, because skipping meals can bring on a headache.

The Migraine Trust offers an online migraine trigger diary here.

9. Sex headaches

It's a standing joke that headaches are used as an excuse to avoid sex, but for many men and women coital headaches that come on at the height of passion are a real and distressing problem.

Doctors think sex headaches are due to pressure building up in the head and neck muscles. The headaches can happen during foreplay or just before orgasm, and can last for a few minutes or up to an hour.

How to fix it: They’re inconvenient, but these headaches are usually harmless and don't mean you have to avoid sex. Take a painkiller a few hours beforehand to block the headache.

10. Ice cream

Do you get a sharp, stabbing pain in your forehead when you bite into an ice-cream cone? Then you’re susceptible to ice-cream headaches, caused by cold material moving across the roof of your mouth and the back of your throat. Ice lollies and slushy frozen drinks have the same effect.

How to fix it: The good news is that ice-cream headaches don’t need treatment. In fact, they’re over in a flash, rarely lasting more than a minute or two.

Page last reviewed: 09/06/2013

Next review due: 09/06/2015

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The 9 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

jodiet said on 26 November 2013

It has long been known by those that suffer that even small amounts of perfume (ubiquitous and unnecessary in so many products) can cause headaches / asthma and even more serious reactions, up to and including neurological damage and anaphylactic shock. Over-exposure to other environmental chemicals can also cause hypersensitivity & adverse reactions to fragrances. Certainly if the NHS is now aware of this they should request staff avoid wearing / using scented products in any area of the NHS.
There are several groups on the net for those needing support in coping with health problems caused environmental chemicals:

Green Canary on Yahoo groups;
Environmental Illness Resource.

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TinaRaggy said on 22 November 2013

As someone who for years got headaches and a runny nose when surrounded by strong perfumes. It is great to see it recognised by the NHS. I now get even worse symptoms when exposed to perfumes. It affects me going to the theatre or cinema and meeting friends. Thankfully many of my friends understand and don't wear perfume or fragrances when we are going out. It is so kind of them.

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Performer35 said on 22 November 2013

The NHS should appreciate that people with MCS and who suffer severe headaches and other illnesses do so as a consequence of contact with minute amounts of perfume, deodorants, chemical cleaners or washing powders among others. It should ask dentists, doctors and hospitals to request staff and visitors not to wear such chemicals on their premises. After all they are supposed to be a caring profession.

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annwithaplan said on 21 November 2013

So pleased that the NHS now recognises that Perumes/fragrances can cause headaches but please can someone in authority let all the staff know !!
The last 3 times I've had occasion to visit a hospital, even the porter pushing my bed had aftershave on, Most of the nurses had perfume on and/or toxic chemical anti-perspirant. It is now a well known fact that all these chemicals reach the internal organs within 20 seconds, so these medics are putting themselves at risk as well as patients.
As one who has severe multiple chemical sensitivities, I am so very pleased that these facts are at last becoming public as many folk with asthma are also allergic to chemical fragrances

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Performer35 said on 21 November 2013

The NHS need to recognise that many people suffer serious headaches and other ill effects from proximity to very small doses of chemicals. We find it difficult if not impossible to visit hospitals, doctors or dentists. It would help significantly if the medical profession acknowledged this illness and took strong action to stop staff and visitors to their premises wearing perfumes, deodorants and strong smelling washing powders.

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Jnc said on 20 November 2013

Sorry to post twice - my comment disappeared, so I posted it again thinking I'd done something wrong.

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Jnc said on 20 November 2013

It is good to see that the NHS now accepts that perfumes can affect health. Not only headaches - perfumes and other chemicals can cause many different symptoms.

Wi-fi can also cause headaches, aswell as sleep disturbance and other symptoms. I found this out by chance after a long power cut. It's easy to check this, providing you do not live in a wi-fi city, or live adjacent to someone with wi-fi on all the time. Simply switch off all wi-fi and unnecessary electricals at night - computer connections, cordless phones, mobile phones, playstations, whole house TV and radio systems - also baby monitors and pendant alarms for the elderly if not needed. Only turn things on during the day that you need to use. Try it for a week to see if you feel better. If you do, consider refusing a Smart meter when they come in.

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Vivien Pomfrey MSc said on 18 November 2013

I am pleased to see that the NHS now recognises that perfumed products can be hazardous to health.

The next logical step will be to ban such products from NHS premises, and instruct associated service providers (e.g. GP surgeries) to do the same. This has already been done in some more-enlightened countries.

There can be no justification for exposing sick people to harmful chemicals - such as those in air 'fresheners') - when they are seeking help for their health problems. I was close to fainting on at least one occasion in a GP waiting room due to chemical pollution of the air, presumably from air 'fresheners' on the wall. (I had not felt faint when I arrived.)

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ashleighthompson01 said on 14 August 2009

Thanks for this artcial it has realy opened my eyes up to preventing headaches!

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