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Flying with a Migraine

Airplane Headaches

Whether flying for business or pleasure, the last thing you want is a headache. Check-out our top tips to give you the best chance of landing migraine free!

Man holding his head while waiting in an airport lounge

What are Airplane Headaches?

Headaches attributed to aeroplane travel also called aeroplane headaches are also abbreviated to AHs. Airplane headaches have only been defined and included in the ‘headache classification’ since 2013, as assigned by the International Headache Society (IHS), which is responsible for providing headache classifications and updates.

Aeroplane headaches are brought on by aeroplane travel and can really impact some travellers. It is not entirely known what causes AHs, but they are usually associated with take-off and landing and tend to take the form of intense short-term pain or throbbing. The good news is that these headaches tend to resolve after 30 to 60 minutes after landing, but can cause serious short-term discomfort.

However, it is possible for those prone to airplane headaches may make modifications to try and reduce the likelihood and impact of headaches.

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What causes aeroplane headaches?

Despite many being affected by airplane headaches, the underlying mechanisms of the spectrum of altitude-related headaches are still very elusive. They are believed to be caused by one of several mechanisms related to the body’s physiological responses to the atmospheric pressure changes induced by air flight. Sinonasal barotrauma has been suggested as a key cause, which is a form of damage to tissue, particularly within the ear, caused by aeroplane pressure. This can cause localised pain in the area of the eye, temple or at the front of the head.

Flying is also associated with other problems such as dehydration, sitting uncomfortably and erratic mealtimes, all of which could trigger a migraine. For many, even just the stress or perhaps anxiety of flying might be enough to bring on a flight-triggered migraine. There is the stress of packing, carrying heavy suitcases, jet lag or lack of sleep, climate change, and all these factors will impact the body.

AH Prevention: Top Tips

There are no standardised approaches to the treatment or prevention of AH. But, there are some proactive steps you can take to help yourself. Here are some top tips to help reduce the chances of developing a migraine on your next flight:

Pre-Book your Seat

Anticipate your needs when booking your flight ticket and choose to pre-book your seat. Know your comfort zone and be proactive. Perhaps you'd prefer to be next to the window so that you can close the shade and reduce the light, or perhaps you prefer the aisle seat so that you have easier access to the restrooms.

Top Tip: Have you booked your flight ticket through Alternative Airlines? Find out more about pre-booking your seat here.

Consider Upgrading your Ticket Class

This will be incredibly important if you are travelling on a long-haul or transatlantic flight. If you are going to be in the air for a while, you want to be comfortable. Many airlines offer a premium economy ticket as an upgrade on the economy, offering more personal space and extra facilities such as amenity kits and/or comfort kits, containing everything from blankets to cushions, as well as more comfortable seating with leg-rests and/or headrests.

Top Tip: For more information, check out our guides: Airlines with the biggest seats in Economy, and Premium Economy, is it worth it? If you are really prone to AH, perhaps even consider flying Business, and reduce the stress of flying as much as possible.

Pack Medication

Anti-inflammatory medications have all been found helpful in reducing the symptoms of headaches. However, many AH sufferers do not regularly have headaches, so might not carry headache medication. Before travelling, don’t forget your medication just in case, and remember to include the medicine in your carry-on luggage, as you may require it during your flight!

Top Tip: For more information, check out our guide: Flying with Medication.

Consider your Physical and Mental Wellbeing on a Plane

We've put together a comprehensive guide which offers information and advice about wellness during flights, including helping to relieve common problems such as flying anxiety, jet lag, ear pain and back pain while flying. Check out our guide here.

Stay Hydrated

Drink LOTS of water. It's easy not to stay hydrated when flying, especially when you're too busy getting to and around the airport and have to leave your water behind when passing through security. And it's never nice to disturb fellow passengers to visit the bathroom during the flight. However, the pressurised cabin can make dehydration worse, so always have your water with you and keep drinking. Remember, tea and coffee can make dehydration worse, so drink in moderation alongside your water!

Avoid Potential Risks

If you are susceptible to AH, it might be that you are also sensitive to a range of factors that can trigger a headache. This could be flickering lights, bright lights, loud noises, or extreme temperature changes. Therefore, do your best to avoid potential triggers. This might include packing sunglasses, sleeping masks, and earplugs into your carry-on.

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Are airplane headaches dangerous?

No, typically airplane headaches do not cause any serious side effects. Although uncomfortable, airplane headaches will usually only last for a short period of time and will disperse 30-60 minutes after landing.

Can jet lag cause airplane headaches?

Yes! Jet lag unfortunately can cause many side effects, including airplane headaches. The lack of sleep and change in time zones create the environment for headaches to arise.