6 Reasons Why You Might Get Travel Headaches

For people who get migraines, vacation headaches are all too common—here's what might be at play.

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Browsing through vacation photos can be a fun trip down memory lane. However, for some, recalling a vacation might bring back memories of migraines—headaches with neck pain, dizziness, and sound sensitivity.

Here are some of the precipitating factors for travel headaches. Health spoke with experts to understand six reasons why vacationing can literally be a headache for some people—and what you can do to keep them from making traveling more difficult.

What Is a Vacation Headache?

Headaches that occur while on vacation can result because you are finally relaxing and taking it easy with less stress, in a perceived less stressful environment. Headaches can, unfortunately, happen at any time, and getting them while traveling isn't as uncommon as you might think.

You might go on vacation to take a step away from the stress of your job or to renew your focus on your well-being. However, one outcome of a disruption to your usual daily routine is headaches.

Six Reasons You Have a Travel Headache

Headaches can happen for many reasons. Travel headaches can happen because of the travel itself or for reasons that are separate from traveling.

You Get a "Let-Down Headache"

You've just settled into a beach chair in the midst of a tranquil scene when you feel a migraine starting. Or maybe you're finally able to take that walk or hike following your college finals, and then your head starts to hurt. Perhaps you're meeting some friends for brunch after what seems like weeks of emergency room visits with your sick child when you feel that all too familiar head pain. You might even suddenly feel sick after finishing a stressful work project.

These headache phenomena are known as "let-down headaches."

"A let-down headache is a headache which occurs when there has been a drop in stress levels," Deena Kuruvilla, MD, neurologist, headache specialist, and director of the Westport Headache Institute, told Health. "Many patients with chronic or episodic migraines tell me that their headache frequency [was] really well controlled on preventive migraine treatments, but then boom, they go on vacation and experience an attack!"

There is evidence for and against this type of headache. The data could be mixed because this type of headache seems to be mainly a result of perceived stress. How you react to your perceived stress. such as drinking caffeine or alcohol and changing your sleeping patterns, seems to influence whether you have a "let-down headache."

Fortunately, to keep your relaxation from backfiring into a headache, there are options. To stabilize stress levels, especially prior to leaving for vacation, try:

  • Clearly communicating your needs and feelings
  • Getting more sleep
  • Making lists to help prioritize what's important
  • Managing time commitments
  • Spending quality time with a partner or friend

These and other stress management activities can help avoid the spike-and-drop pattern that might trigger a migraine.

Lots of Smaller Stressors

The truth is not every aspect of vacation is stress-free bliss. From last-minute packing woes to the difficult in-laws you may be visiting, there are a number of reasons why you might need a vacation from your vacation. All of these can add up to stress headaches—literally and figuratively.

Remaining or becoming calm is easier said than done when you are stressed. However, self-care strategies for de-stressing are your best bet for preventing the onset of a headache. Try these suggestions to help guide you to a calmer place of well-being,

  • Download a guided meditation to listen to in the car
  • Give yourself quiet, unscheduled breaks throughout your trip
  • Practice deep breathing exercises in the airport terminal

You’re Off Your Typical Sleep Schedule

When you're away from your own bed, sleep doesn't always come easily. "Migraine and sleep run hand in hand," said Dr. Kuruvilla, "[especially when] traveling across time zones [which] can throw off a person's circadian rhythm, [and] contribute to sleep disruption and migraine attacks."

You may want to have a melatonin supplement on hand to help. "Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the circadian rhythm," stated Dr. Kuruvilla. In addition, melatonin can offer migraine relief by reducing the intensity of the headache.

For better shuteye on vacation, practice healthy sleep hygiene:

  • Discontinue the use of devices before heading to bed
  • Keep a cool, dark bedroom
  • Stick to your usual bedtime routine as much as possible

You're Dehydrated

It's hard to overstate the importance of staying hydrated to prevent a headache. "Even 1 to 2% of body water loss can increase your chances of developing headaches," dietitian Maryann Walsh, MFN, RD, CDE, told Health. "It's critical to get adequate water."

While air travel alone can be dehydrating, the low humidity in a plane cabin isn't the only factor that can lead to vacation dehydration. Simply switching environments can bump you out of your usual healthy habits.

"Being out of your normal routine can lead to not hydrating as you normally would, especially if you are on a road trip or flight and you'd rather not have to stop or get up to use the restroom every hour," stated Walsh.

Then there's the ubiquitous vacation culprit: alcohol. "Because alcohol acts as a diuretic, it can further cause us to be dehydrated," indicated Walsh. "If we aren't drinking enough water before, in between, and after a day or night of cocktails, this can lead not only to a dreaded hangover but also headaches."

Follow these tips to stay hydrated:

  • Drink electrolytes if you feel dehydrated or have been sweating a lot
  • Drink more water than you normally would, especially if you're somewhere it's hot
  • Keep a bottle of water in your travel bag and refill it throughout the day
  • Keep the non-alcoholic beverages flowing alongside any alcoholic drinks

Diet Changes

Could that dinner you enjoyed at a restaurant send you reaching for the ibuprofen the next day? For some people, foods high in substances like tyramine, nitrates, sulfites, and artificial ingredients can trigger head pain. Common culprits include aged cheeses, cured and processed meats, pickled foods, and alcohol—all of which you'll frequently encounter in restaurant dining.

Travel can disrupt other individual diet choices you might normally make to live pain-free. "Some of us may have dietary headache triggers that we usually avoid in our daily lives but may not be able to avoid if there are sneaky ingredients we are consuming out at restaurants," said Walsh. If you know the foods that trigger your headaches, avoid eating them as best you can. You could also try eating more frequent, smaller meals and sticking with unprocessed, fresh foods.

There's also the impact of caffeine. Fluctuations in caffeine intake are known for tripping the headache wire. If vacation mode has you chilling out sans coffee—when you'd normally drink several cups a day—a headache can result. With that, keep your caffeine intake consistent and stick to your usual food intake if possible.

You’re at a Higher Altitude

As you make your way up winding roads for a mountain getaway and look forward to fresh air and cooler temps, the altitude change may cause headaches. Hypoxia occurs when the oxygen supply to your body is inadequate because of low blood flow or low oxygen in the air.

You don't have to be scaling Mount Everest for altitude to mess with your head. Even small elevation changes may lead to discomfort. "Studies have confirmed that all migraine-associated symptoms, headache frequency, and headache severity tend to worsen with increasing altitude," noted Dr. Kuruvilla. You may even experience a headache when you're on an airplane due to the sudden change in altitude.

The higher you go the more likely you are to experience hypoxia because your lungs and heart have to work harder to deliver oxygen, so your brain tissues may not get enough oxygen. To get relief from altitude headaches:

  • Descend 1,000 to 3,300 feet
  • Take ibuprofen
  • Stay hydrated and take frequent breaks

A Quick Review

Going on a vacation may be a wanted break from your normal routine, but the changes to your routine may be what bring on headaches. Try to stick to your usual routine and habits as much as possible to keep the headaches at bay.

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Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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