For several years, Heather traveled with her sister and brother-in-law to visit relatives at major holidays. Each time, she ended up with a monster headache she chalked up to holiday stress. Only after seeing a neurologist did she get a diagnosis of migraine headaches and a potential cause: second-hand smoke in the upholstery of her brother-in-law’s car.
It’s no secret that smoking causes a number of serious health problems such as asthma, strokes, COPD, and lung cancer. Scientists now believe there’s also a probable link between smoking and migraines, according to WebMD.
Exactly What is a Migraine?
The Mayo Clinic says it’s a chronic headache whose pain can endure for hours and sometimes days. Severe pain can affect just one or both sides of the head. It tends to be pulsating or throbbing and worsens with increased physical activity. It often interferes with regular activities.
Some patients experience nausea, with or without vomiting, and auras. Sensitivity to light and sound is common.
For many patients, the onset of a migraine headache doesn’t occur immediately after a trigger. Some experience one or more extremely varied symptoms of premonition – a phase known as a prodrome – anywhere from several hours to a day or so before the headache hits. The most common signals are feelings of elation or intense energy, thirst, drowsiness, a craving for sweets, and irritability or depression.
The Role of Smoke
Nicotine – a major component of cigarettes, cigars and pipes – stimulates the brain’s blood vessels to constrict. It also affects nerves in the back of the throat. Both of these effects cause the pain associated with a headache.
According to Perfect Health, when tobacco smoke triggers a migraine, the effects of the smoke can be especially harmful. They include elevated blood pressure, inflammation or irritation of the individual’s sinus cavities and nasal passages, and a higher-than-average risk for strokes.
One study of smokers reported that those who cut their use of tobacco by less than half a pack of cigarettes a day experienced a 50 percent reduction in headaches. An allergy to smoke or a sensitivity to its odor can trigger migraine headaches, whether the individual is a smoker or merely exposed to second-hand smoke.
When to See a Doctor
The Mayo Clinic suggests that many episodes of migraine headache remain undiagnosed or treated incorrectly. It’s important to keep records of when symptoms occur, how long they last, and anything used to treat them. Suddenly experiencing several headaches without a history of this type of problem is a reason to see a health care provider. So is a change in the pattern of headaches in individuals who frequently suffer from them.
For patients with typical migraines or a family history of this type of headache, most doctors make a diagnosis after a medical history and a physical exam. For other patients, procedures such as a CT or MRI scan, a spinal tap, or allergy testing are necessary.
How Sufferers Can Help Themselves
The ideal situation for anyone suffering from migraines is to steer clear of their triggers. Once smoke has been identified as a culprit, it should be avoided. Regular exercise also cuts stress and helps prevent migraines, assuming the activity has a health care provider’s approval.
If sensitive individuals can’t avoid occasional exposure to second-hand smoke and suffer only mild migraines, taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs can help manage an attack. Those with more severe symptoms might require a prescription for a drug specifically manufactured for migraines.