One (Or More) Of These Things Might Be Causing Your Headaches

Just because everyone gets headaches doesn't mean we all get the same headaches. There are a bunch of different kinds — and women are more likely to get most of 'em. Plus, not only are headaches painful and far too common, but they're also annoyingly mysterious. They may come on for seemingly no reason at the most random of times. And experts still aren't sure exactly what causes them.

What they do know is that essentially, a headache happens when the blood vessels and nerves that surround your brain (over)react to your body's chemical signals. Those, in turn, may be cued by things in your environment, such as certain types of light, sounds, or foods. But exactly why or how that happens is still unknown.

And of course, not all headaches cause the same type of pain. Headaches can be a symptom of all sorts of issues, from sinus infections or allergies to simply forgetting to eat lunch. We know that tension headaches, for instance, tend to affect both sides of your head and are commonly caused by stress. We also know that cluster headaches are excruciatingly painful and may occur daily (or several times per day) for a period of weeks or months before going away for just as long. And we know that migraines, which are characterized by painful throbbing on one or both sides of the head, may also start with visual symptoms, such as a shining "aura" about 30 minutes before the actual headache hits.

Minor headaches that only come once in a while can usually be tamed with over-the-counter meds, such as ibuprofen, and are nothing to worry about. But if you find you're getting frequent headaches (at least two per week), there's no need to suffer on your own. In some rare circumstances, a headache that's new and severe can be a sign of serious issues, such as a brain tumor. So if your headaches are coming in different patterns or they're the worst headaches you've ever had, it's a good idea to get them checked out.

But even if they're not a symptom of something scarier, your doctor may recommend that you see a headache specialist. The specific cocktail of things that trigger headaches is different for everyone, so a specialist can help you narrow down what's going on and pinpoint the factors in your life that may be subtly contributing to your personal brand of headaches.

Still, knowing common headache triggers can provide some helpful clues to get you started. Ahead, we cover 26 of the most commonly reported headache and migraine causes so you can be on the lookout.
1 of 26
Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Neck Pain

In a recently published study in Cephalalgia, neck pain was the most commonly reported migraine trigger.
Advertisement
2 of 26
Photographed by Bianca Valle.
Poor Sleep

You need sleep for a lot of reasons, including the fact that, as a recent study suggests, it helps your body keep your pain system in check.
3 of 26
Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Temperature

Migraine sufferers commonly report that they're more likely to suffer an attack during some types of weather compared to others. Some may be triggered by temperature spikes in the summer. But for others, winter storms may bring on the pain.
4 of 26
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Strong Odors

All sorts of strong smells — such as cigarette smoke, perfume, and cleaning sprays — have been known to bring on migraine attacks.
5 of 26
Photographed by Maria Del Rio.
Bright Lights

People in the midst of a migraine attack are often temporarily sensitive to light, a condition called "photophobia." But they may also report light (including that emitted by your phone or laptop) as a trigger.
6 of 26
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Loud Noises

Similar to light, loud noises can both trigger and exacerbate a migraine.
Advertisement
7 of 26
Photographed by Alice Gao.
Missed Meals

We know sometimes it just happens, but it's never a good idea to go without a meal. Not only are you not being a mindful eater, but that hunger can set off a headache.
8 of 26
Photographed by Katie McCurdy.
Dehydration

Skipping water can set off a headache, too. Although you don't have to necessarily drink eight glasses a day like we've all been endlessly told, you do need to make sure you're drinking enough. Which, it turns out, is easy to do if you listen to your body's signals.
9 of 26
Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
Humidity

Some of us have extra trouble on rainy days thanks to both the drop in temperature and the uptick in humidity.
10 of 26
Photographed by Megan Madden.
Menstruation

Many people report that they're more likely to get migraines right before or during menstruation due to the fluctuation of estrogen. Thanks, hormones!
11 of 26
Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Stress

All kinds of stress, at work or at home, can make you more susceptible to other triggers, too. So although you may not normally get a headache after taking a whiff of your favorite perfume, an anxiety-filled day on the job could set off a migraine.
Advertisement
12 of 26
Excessive Sleep

Sorry, it's true: There is such a thing as too much sleep. Researchers suspect this has to do with the level of serotonin in your system because this neurotransmitter affects your mood, energy, and blood flow.
13 of 26
Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Caffeine

This one's a little tricky: Some people find that a quick cup of coffee can ease the pain of a migraine, while others find it sets off the headaches. Whether or not it will work for you probably depends on how often you're drinking it and how much you drink. For instance, if you're a daily coffee drinker, going without your morning cup will probably do more harm than good. But that doesn't mean you should add an extra shot instead.
14 of 26
Photographed by Amelia Alpaugh.
Nuts

While they can be a delicious, protein-packed snack, a handful of nuts could also trigger headaches because they contain tyramine, an amino acid commonly linked to migraines.
15 of 26
Photographed by Ruben Chamorro.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

The scariest things linked to MSG have pretty much been disproven at this point. But some people do report that their favorite Chinese dishes still trigger headaches.
16 of 26
Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
Citrus Fruits

Fruits like oranges and lemons also contain tyramine and may, therefore, set off headaches.
17 of 26
Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
Wine

Red wine is notorious for causing headaches, and it is a major culprit, but it's not the only one. In fact, research has shown that people report both white and sparkling wines as migraine triggers, too.
18 of 26
Pressure

Changes in the air pressure can also bring on headaches. That may be another reason changes in the weather trigger migraines. But some people report that even short-term pressure changes, such as being on an airplane, can cause them.
19 of 26
Photographed by Molly Cranna.
Physical Activity

There is research to suggest that vigorous or prolonged exercise can cause headaches, possibly because of the change in blood flow to the brain.
20 of 26
Photographed by Eric Helgas.
Nitrates

These compounds are found in many meats and dairy products, including processed meats, cheese, and fish. But they're also found in veggies, such as beets and leafy greens. Your body turns nitrates into nitric oxide, which can affect blood flow.
21 of 26
Photographed by Jessica Nash.
Smoking

Smoking itself — not just the smell of cigarettes — can cause headaches, especially if you smoke more than five cigarettes per day.
22 of 26
Photographed by Anna Alexia Basile.
Cheese

Unfortunately, many people report that their migraines are triggered by the beautiful food that is cheese. That could be because, depending on the variety, it may contain both nitrates and tyramine.
23 of 26
Photographed by Andy Price.
Chocolate

Here's where things get really dark: Because chocolate contains nitrates, it may trigger your headaches.
24 of 26
Photographed by Winnie Au.
Spirits

Even if you're avoiding wine, other types of alcohol could still lead you to migraines. There's some evidence to suggest that darker liquors, such as whiskey, may be more likely to cause headaches, but that's certainly not conclusive.
25 of 26
Photographed by Christy Kurtz.
Artificial Sweeteners

Researchers have tried to figure this one out, and there's not much science to explain why artificial sweeteners tend to trigger headaches. But plenty of people still report the connection.
26 of 26
Photographed by Ruby Yeh.
Beer

Like in wine and spirits, the alcohol in beer can lead to headaches — both while you're drinking and the day after.