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It's a common problem: the temperature drops, and you find yourself overwhelmed with head pain. Some people attribute it to stress from the holidays, since notable changes in the weather often occur during the whirlwind months of November and December. But while emotional stress can contribute to migraines, Dr. Shital Shah, a neurologist with Summit Health, explains that the shift in temperature plays a bigger role than many realize. In fact, it can trigger issues ranging from migraines to sinus pressure to ear pain.

How does the cold weather affect my head?

There are two factors of cold weather that might be causing your head pain:

1. The barometric pressure lowers.

You may need to go way back to your earth science class to remember that cold weather often corresponds to low-pressure air systems, causing changes between indoor and outdoor air pressure. This causes pain in a couple of ways:

  • Sinus headaches and ear pain. These occur due to the swelling as your body adjusts to the shift in air pressure. "It's the same concept of getting a headache on a plane," explains Dr. Shah, "The change often causes painful pressure on the sinus and ears."
  • Migraines. Blood-flow changes to the brain are a chief trigger for migraines. "This can be caused by weather and pressure changes," explains Dr. Shah, "which can cause blood vessels to dilate, and that affects how the body responds."

2. Humidity drops.

We usually notice the shifts in our skin due to drier air, and we slather on heavy moisturizer as a defense mechanism. But dryness in the air doesn't just affect your skin. Your body is drier inside as well. Dehydration causes the mucus in the sinuses to thicken, making it more difficult for the cilia inside to push the mucus out. "This can lead to sinus infections, which cause sinus headaches," explains Dr. Shah.

What can I do to treat and prevent cold-weather headaches?

Talk to your doctor.  This may seem like basic advice, but they can help you diagnose what type of pain you're experiencing. "Sinus headaches are quite different from migraines," notes Dr. Shah, "but sometimes people have a hard time telling the difference.

Consider which medication works best for you. "When a headache comes on, use whatever rescue medication you normally use," says Dr. Shah, "whether that's a prescription or an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory." But if you're getting frequent headaches, "such as multiple times a week," she says, "speak to your doctor about taking preventative action."

Pay attention. Keeping a headache or migraine diary to monitor when you experience headaches is a good way to prevent this pain from disrupting your life. "If you realize that weather changes trigger your migraines," says Dr. Shah, "for example from fall to winter, then I can work with you to get ahead of it and put you on a preventative medication."