Allergies and Migraine Headaches

Migraines and Allergy

Photo © A.D.A.M.

What are Migraines?

Migraine headache is a chronic condition affecting approximately 6% of men and 18% of women. Symptoms can be severe, disrupt daily activities, require bed rest, and potentially last for days. The cause of migraines is not completely understood, although is thought to be related to chemicals in the body that cause blood vessels in the brain to dilate, which can lead to the headaches.

How Does Someone Know that they have Migraines?

The International Headache Society (IHS) defines migraine headaches as the following:

  • Headache attacks that last at least 4 to 72 hours at a time
  • Headaches with at least two of the following qualities:
    • one-sided pain
    • pulsating quality
    • moderate to severe symptoms affecting daily activities
    • symptoms increased with physical activity
  • One of the following symptoms with the headache attacks
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Sensitivity to sound
    • Sensitivity to light
  • At least 5 headaches with the above criteria have occurred

What is the Difference Between Migraines and Sinus Headaches?

The International Headache Society (IHS) defines sinus headaches as the following:

  • Colored nasal discharge
  • Abnormal x-rays (or CAT scan) of the sinuses
  • Symptoms of sinusitis and headaches over the involved sinuses
  • Disappearance of the headache after treatment for sinusitis

So, sinus headaches, according to the IHS, relate to sinusitis.

Yet most diagnoses of “sinus headaches” do not appear to be related to sinusitis. It is therefore possible that these “sinus headaches” are in fact migraine headaches.

How Could Allergies and Migraines be Related?

Allergic rhinitis may often lead to a “sinus headache”. An allergic reaction leads to the release of histamine, which can also lead to the dilation of blood vessels in the brain, and therefore cause or worsen a migraine headache.

Do People with Allergies Suffer More Migraines?

In at least one study, this appears to be the case. People with allergic rhinitis were determined to meet criteria for migraine headaches far more likely than people without allergic rhinitis. In fact, those with allergies were approximately 14 times more likely to report migraine headaches compared to those without allergies.

Other studies show an association between migraine headaches and allergic asthma, and that the occurrence of migraines in children with atopic diseases is increased. Furthermore, approximately 40% of children with migraine headaches show the presence of allergies through allergy testing.

Do Food Allergies Cause or Worsen Migraine Headaches?

There is much controversy in the area of food allergies related to migraines. While some experts believe that foods can worsen migraines through an allergic process, others believe the trigger is a result of food intolerance. It is possible that migraines are triggered by both allergic and non-allergic reactions to foods.

Does Treatment of Allergies Help Migraine Headaches?

Most studies using anti-histamines for the treatment and prevention of migraine headaches do not show that these medications are helpful. However, it has been suggested that the aggressive treatment of allergic rhinitis, which may include nasal sprays and allergy shots, may help treat and prevent headaches in those people who appear to have allergic triggers to their migraines.


Ku M, Silverman B, Pfifti N et al. Prevalence of Migraine Headaches in Patients with Allergic Rhinitis. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2006; 97: 226-30.

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