Maybe you’re relaxing at the beach with your family. Or you’re spending the afternoon trimming bushes in your yard as a dull pain slowly spreads over your head. Nothing ruins a summer day like a headache, but what you might not know is that sunny summer day can actually lead to a headache — a condition called heat-induced headache.
“Heat-induced headaches often act, and are treated, differently than other headaches,” explains Gavin Dawson, PA-C, WEMT, a board-certified Physician Assistant, emergency room clinician and professional wilderness emergency medical technician at Wilderness Medical Associates International. Read on to learn how a steamy summer day can spark a heat-induced headache…and what to do to send that pain packing.
What are heat-induced headaches?
Their name tells part of the story, but Dawson explains that the cause of heat-induced headaches are a bit more complex than simply being exposed to high temperatures. “Contrary to popular belief, heat-induced headaches are caused not by the hot temperature itself, but how your body reacts to exposure to that heat.”
Indeed, spending time in sticky or steamy situations raises your body’s temperature, which causes blood vessels to dilate, or open wider, to send more blood near the skin’s surface and release heat. That blood rush to the skin inadvertently reduces blood flow to the brain, minimizing its oxygen supply, which results in headache.
Anyone can experience a heat-induced headache, but those prone to headaches, such as people with migraines, are especially susceptible to a heat-induced headache, according to Sean Ormond MD, an anesthesiologist and interventional pain-management specialist.
How can you tell you have a heat-induced headache? Dr. Ormond says symptoms include a dull, throbbing pain on both sides of the head that may worsen with activity like walking or gardening. Nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light or sound are also red flags. What’s more, “Heat-induced headaches typically occur in the afternoon or evening after you’ve spent hours exposed to high temperatures.”
What triggers heat-induced headaches?
There are many ways the rising mercury triggers the chain of events that cause a heat induced headache. Those include:
Dehydration is one of the biggest culprits, says Kelvin Fernandez, MD, an internist at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and healthcare educator at Ace Med Boards. “Sweating is the most common way you lose water as well as electrolytes (learn how to increase your electrolyte levels and lose weight). This can lead to dehydration and reduce blood volume, making it harder for the heart to pump blood to the brain to cause a headache.” (See more dangers of dehydration here.)
The same changes in air pressure that send thunderous storm clouds rolling over your head commonly cause heat-induced headaches, according to neurologists at Tokai University School of Medicine. “Our brains are sensitive to atmospheric pressure changes, and for many, a shift in barometric pressure can result in changes in blood flow to the brain that spark a heat-induced headache even if you’re properly hydrated,” explains Dr. Fernandez.
Another reason those pesky heat-induced headaches occur is because of changes in blood flow to the brain. “When you’re hot, your blood vessels automatically dilate, [a phenomenon called vasodilation], which can increase blood flow to the brain, putting pressure on the brain that causes headaches,” explains Dr Fernandez.
What’s the best way treat a heat-induced headache?
No need to suffer with the throbbing in your temples from a heat-induced headache. Try these remedies the next time a long summer day becomes a big pain.
Drink a big glass of salty water
Keeping a filled water bottle nearby whenever you spend time in the heat — even if it’s cloudy outside — is essential to calm a heat-induced headache. Just make sure to add some electrolytes to that bottle, too. “You can still end up dehydrated by not replenishing electrolytes, even if you’re drinking water,” explains registered dietician Dan Gallagher, of Aegle Nutrition. Luckily, it doesn’t take much to replenish what your body needs, even a small pinch of Himalayan sea salt in your water or a powdered electrolyte packet (buy on Amazon, $21.99) does the trick. “You can start to feel the difference in just 15 minutes.
Try willow bark
Willow bark, an ancient remedy relied on to treat headaches for thousands of years, contains salicin, a powerful anti-inflammatory chemical similar to aspirin that eases the pain of heat-induced headaches. You’ll find willow bark at most drugstores or health stores in capsule or powder form. The recommended dose for pain relief is 240 milligrams a day.
Inhale a floral scent
Sniffing a few drops of lavender essential oil can wipe out a heat-induced headache. Indeed, this staple in aromatherapy has been used to promote healing, stress relief and relaxation for centuries, but it can also quiet the pain of a headache, according to a study published in European Neurology. And a separate study published in Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that people reported a significant reduction in headache pain after only 15 minutes of inhaling the lavender oil. To get the perks, add a few drops of lavender to a cotton ball or washcloth and inhale the floral scent, rub lavender oil (mixed with a carrier oil like grapeseed, jojoba or sweet almond) on your temples and forehead or add a few drops to an essential oil diffuser. Find more benefits of essential oils here.
Apply a cool compress
Heading indoors to chill out with a cool shower or cold compress on the back of your neck or forehead can also quickly alleviate heat-induced headaches. “Add a few drops of lavender essential oil to the cold compress for these two tricks to team up together and speed up relief,” suggests Dr. Fernandez. (Click through to learn how cold water can also slash stress.)
How can you prevent a heat-induced headache?
Drink water often and wisely
Hydration truly is your best bet to stay pain-free in the heat. But avoid sugary sips, says Gallagher. “The sugar in soda, iced lattes and alcohol forces your kidneys to work harder to process the sugar and speeds up dehydration.” (Click through to discover how motivational water bottles can help you stay hydrated.)
Seek the shade
Do your best to stay out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. So says Dr. Ormond, who suggests hanging out in the shade as much as possible if you have to be outdoors during those hours. A wide-brimmed hat and light, loose clothing will also make those sunny hours more bearable, keeping you cool to prevent headaches.
Sunburn makes your body work harder to cool down, contributing to dehydration and potentially a heat-induced headache. “Using a strong SPF, applied frequently if you’re sweating or swimming, can reduce the odds of a headache as well as issues like sun damage and skin cancer,” says Dr. Fernandez. To learn which SPF is best for you, click here!
Whether you’re splashing in the pool, pruning roses or at a family reunion, make sure to take regular breaks from the heat, says Dr. Ormond. “Take advantage of going indoors for a few minutes, especially if you’ve been exerting yourself or are sweating a lot.” If you can’t head inside, try to spend a few quiet minutes in the shade to give your body a break from the heat.
For more secrets to a feel-great summer no matter how hot it gets, check out these stories: