When heading out on a trip, the last thing you want is a pounding head. But like it or not migraines and travel go together for a lot of reasons, including the emotional and physical stress of travel, dehydration, and lack of sleep. The best thing to do is be aware, be cautious, and be prepared.
I too get migraines. As a travel writer and avid traveler, that can be tough since I know that prepping for a trip, climbing into an airplane, and going to different climates are some of the things that trigger my pounding head. How to avoid migraines when traveling? Here are a few of my own travel migraine relief tips:
Migraines and travel — Be aware
Know your triggers — Every migraine, as we know all too well, is quite different, both from person-to-person and also often from case-to-case. Knowing your personal triggers — be that stress, fatigue, particular foods or smells – is essential. And knowing how these triggers may vary is important too. My triggers tend to be stress (as shown by research as common), fatigue, barometric changes and lack of sleep – or a combination of these things. So I try to breathe, not get keyed up with travel glitches, and I’m a maniac about getting my sleep!
Check your surroundings – Especially in other countries, smoking may be more prevalent than in North America. Don’t be shy about staying upwind, avoiding smoky rooms and restaurants, or just moving away from smokers. Heck, when I’m running or walking, if I see a smoker, I hold my breath for 10 steps getting past them to avoid sucking it in.
Booking flights – An airplane is not just any airplane. And although not the epitome of comfort these days, they may seem innocent enough when it comes to migraines and travel, but that is so wrong. Most planes are pressured at about 8,000 feet of altitude for a lot of mechanical reasons. Nevertheless, that qualifies as high altitude when it comes to headaches. One alternative is to check if any airlines flying to your destination are using a newer 787. This plane is pressurized to only about 6,000 feet and uses softer lighting. Indeed, science shows it may be easier preventing migraines when flying on a 787.
Honor the need for rest – Resting and sleeping are key in avoiding migraines when traveling but also in finding relief if you do get one. Don’t try to just “soldier on” if your head is pounding. Take a break, get some rest, and take care of yourself. Same goes for sleep. You may want to see and do everything you can on a holiday (or, on business travel, feel obligated to stay up late with colleagues), but learning to say “no,” or “see you later / in the morning” is a vital preventative, as also shown by scientific studies.
Prepare for the weather where you are going – Weather – or changes in weather – may be a migraine trigger for you. Or you may not know if it is. I find that very hot and very humid climates can bring on migraines when traveling, just as can bright, glaring, hot sun. Be prepared with sunglasses, visors or hats, and sunscreen, and do take time for breaks in the shade.
HITT Tip: Check out pharmacies in other countries. Sometimes, you can fill a prescription in a different country for a better price. Just go to a legitimate pharmacy, and be sure the product is from a mainstream manufacturer. Also, other First World countries have various over-the-counter migraine medications that still require a prescription in the United States but are very safe and mainstream. It’s worth a try but do check with your doctor first.
Migraines and travel – Be cautious
Alcohol, yes or no – Since planes are pressurized at altitude and thus quite dry, the advice often is to avoid alcohol to prevent migraines when flying. I’ll be honest: I do not do that. Yes, of course, I limit myself to one glass of wine, and I do avoid mixing alcohol or indulging in hard liquor, but I do often enjoy a little wine. Whether you should or not depends on your own triggers. And I always have a glass of water in the other hand to counter any possible dehydrating effects.
Stay hydrated – Drinking plenty of fluids is key, especially on a pressurized plane, but also when in business meetings or when touring cities. It’s too easy when out of your normal routine to realize at the end of the day you haven’t had much to drink. Carry a portable bottle and refill it as often as possible so you have water handy. In some countries, unfortunately, you do not commonly find drinking fountains, and tap water does not come with meals unless you buy bottled water. Also, in some countries, the tap water is not safe to drink, meaning you are limited to bottled water. So even more precaution and attention is required to keep yourself hydrated for migraine prevention and relief.
Drinking coffee and caffeine beverages – Again, this depends on your personal triggers. Me, I drink more coffee if I’m trying to beat back a migraine. But, as noted above, counter any caffeine with plenty of water.
Avoid other triggers, like lights or smells – In a museum recently, Michael and I could see a special exhibit had some flashing lights so he went in first and then told me to avoid it. Do all you can to avoid these bright or flashing lights, extra loud situations, or even strong smells.
Eat right – Another common migraine trigger is skipping meals or not eating right (maybe because you are too busy trying all kinds of new yummies). Make sure you get the nutrition you need, and make sure it’s healthy.
Migraines and travel – Be prepared
Stock a travel kit — Especially in an airplane, having a few simple items may prevent migraines or offer headache relief. Earplugs (to help me sleep or block out noise) are essential, as are eyeshades. If I am getting a migraine – or trying to prevent one – blocking out light with eyeshades can help me avoid tightening my head or squinting, both of which cause even more tension. Both of these can also come in handy in other sleeping situations you aren’t used to. In addition, a neck support pillow can help you avoid neck tension, which may cause migraines. And don’t forget a travel water bottle, sunglasses and a hat or visor for sun protection.
Stash medications and prescriptions – Always carry them with you – on a plane, in a bus, in your toiletry kit, but not only in a checked suitcase (since they can go AWOL or be inaccessible when you need them). And, once at your destination, not just in your toiletry kit but with you at all times. Also take a prescription for your meds, if you have one, preferably with a generic name and not a brand name (e.g. sumatriptan instead of Imitrex) so other countries will know what you need. Sometimes too a mild headache can be helped with non-prescription medications like Hyland’s Migraine Relief, Excedrin Migraine or even some herbal teas (such as ginger or feverfew). Check with your doctor, and try these in advance of any travel.