Migraine and travel
By: Rachel Baxter, Communications Officer, The Migraine Trust
In this blog, we answer common questions about migraine and travelling.
Why do I get migraine attacks when I travel?
Many people with migraine experience attacks when they travel, likely because the act of travelling – particularly on long journeys – tends to involve a number of migraine triggers. These include:
Stress is a very common migraine trigger and is often present when we travel. If travelling makes you feel tense, whether it’s a fear of flying, worries about being late or things going wrong, or the stress of keeping everyone organised, you may feel a migraine attack coming on during the journey or once you’ve arrived. If this is a common occurrence for you, you might then also feel added stress at the prospect of having a migraine attack.
The comedown after a stressful period can also lead to a migraine attack for some people. So, if you’ve just had a really busy week at work trying to finish everything up before your holiday and then suddenly relax at the end of it, this could trigger an attack.
If stress is a trigger for you and you feel stressed when you travel, trying relaxation techniques could help you. For example, you could practice breathing exercises, use an app like Calm, or do some gentle stretches before you travel. If you’re travelling with others, make sure they know that travel stress is a trigger for you and let them sort out the stressful bits like making sure you’re at the right airport gate at the right time.
You can find out more about managing migraine and stress here, and information on migraine and anxiety here. Keep your rescue medication, such as painkillers, anti-sickness medication or triptans, to hand and take one as soon as you feel an attack coming on.
We know the migraine brain doesn’t like change – essentially, any upset to your usual routine, whether it’s disturbed sleep or a skipped meal, can trigger a migraine attack. As travel often involves sudden change to your usual daily routine, particularly if it involves waking up very early or time differences, it can trigger an attack.
If you can, planning your journey for the daytime might help as very early starts, late nights or travelling during the night may make you more likely to experience a migraine attack. It’s also important to make sure you drink plenty of water and eat regularly. If you’re travelling into a new time zone and it changes your mealtimes significantly, carry some healthy snacks with you. Keep your rescue medication to hand so that if you do feel a migraine attack coming on, you can treat it quickly.
Various aspects of your environment while travelling can trigger migraine. These include bright sunlight or harsh artificial lighting, and changes to air pressure around you. Changes in atmospheric pressure caused by weather changes can trigger migraine, so if you arrive somewhere with drastically different weather from where you started, there’s a chance it could trigger an attack. Meanwhile, it’s possible that the air pressure on aeroplanes may trigger migraine in some people. Dehydration is also common when travelling so make sure you have a bottle of water to hand and drink regularly.
Be sure to have your medication with you – if you’re flying keep it in your cabin bag – drink lots of water, and eat at frequent intervals. If you feel migraine symptoms coming on, take your medication straight away and tell anyone your travelling with that you’re experiencing an attack. If you feel very unwell on public transport, you can alert flight attendants, train conductors etc. who should be able to help you.
Taking an eye mask and/or ear plugs with you as you travel may help you shut out bright lights and louds sounds if you have an attack during the journey.
Can flying cause migraine attacks?
Some people find flying triggers their migraine. This may be due to a number of factors, including the cabin pressure, dehydration and even stress. Changes in barometric pressure can trigger migraine, meanwhile, aeroplane cabins have very low humidity which can dehydrate you. Make sure you bring a large bottle of water with you onto the plane or ask a flight attendant for water if you feel dehydrated. Keep drinking regularly throughout the entire flight. Both alcohol and sugary drinks can dehydrate you more so sticking to water when flying is a good idea.
Stress is also a common migraine trigger and many people feel stressed when flying. If flying makes you nervous or you tend to get a migraine attack when flying, it’s worth speaking to your doctor before you fly. They should be able to give you advice and prescribe any medication that might help you as you travel.
If you’re flying and you have migraine, it’s crucial to take all your medication with you in your cabin bag so you have it with you on the flight. This will also prevent any issues if your hold luggage gets lost or delayed. It’s also worth keeping your prescriptions with you if you have a lot of medication as security workers at some airports may want to check these.
I have a migraine on holiday, what should I do?
When on holiday, it can be tempting to try to push through migraine symptoms and carry on with holiday activities, but this is likely to make the migraine attack worse. If you feel an attack coming on, the best thing to do is take your medication, such as paracetamol or triptans, straight away, drink plenty of water and rest. If you can, lie down in a dark, cool room. Having a nap may help end the attack.
If you’re out and about and can’t lie down straight away, try to sit down somewhere quiet, cool and shaded. If you’re able to return to where you’re staying and rest, this is likely to help.
Learn more about the symptoms of migraine here. Learn about common migraine triggers here.