What Is a Barometric Pressure Headache?

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A barometric pressure headache is a head pain or discomfort triggered by changes in the weight or force of the air on earth. Experiencing weather conditions, like thunderstorms, or moving at significant levels above sea level, such as mountain climbing or air travel, are potential causes of these headaches.

This article provides an overview of the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of barometric pressure headaches. It also reviews when to see a healthcare professional for your headache. 

Person sitting outdoors in mountains with headache pain

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Symptoms: What Does a Barometric Pressure Headache Feel Like?

A barometric air pressure headache can be classified into these two categories:

Primary vs. Secondary Headaches

Primary headaches are headaches that arise independently, whereas secondary headaches result from another condition, such as an underlying disease or medication.

The symptoms of a barometric pressure headache depend on the type of headache it's triggering, including:

  • A migraine headache causes a moderate-to-severe throbbing sensation on one or both sides of the head. Migraines are typically associated with nausea, vomiting, and light and sound sensitivity. They may be preceded by an aura (reversible visual or sensory disturbances).
  • A tension-type headache feels like a rubber band wrapped is around the head, although it's not usually as severe as a migraine. Shoulder, scalp, and neck tenderness or tension may also be present.
  • A high-altitude headache is usually intense, throbbing, and located either in the forehead or all over the head. It's often aggravated by coughing, straining, or lying flat and may be accompanied by facial flushing, eye redness, and light sensitivity.
  • A headache attributed to airline travel occurs during the ascent or descent of a plane. This rare headache is severely stabbing in quality and felt over the forehead, behind, or around the eye.

Causes of Barometric Pressure Headaches

The cause of most barometric pressure headaches is not fully understood.

Barometric pressure changes are associated with sensations of ear pressure, and a migraine develops from the activation of trigeminal nerve fibers. Since trigeminal nerve pathways exist in the ear region, migraines may be triggered by these ear-pressure sensations.

Along the same line, barometric pressure changes can cause a sensation of head compression. Since tension-type headaches arise from activating pain receptors on your neck or scalp muscles, the head-compressing sensation may stimulate these pain receptors.

With high-altitude headaches and headaches attributed to airline travel, experts suspect they arise from the swelling of the brain's blood vessels. This swelling could be triggered by low oxygen levels or sinus barotrauma (pressure differences between the air in the sinus cavities and the surrounding atmosphere).

Diagnosing Barometric Pressure Headaches

A barometric pressure headache diagnosis can be made with a careful medical history and neurological exam.

Imaging or other diagnostic tests are not usually needed unless the neurological exam is abnormal or there are worrisome features like fever or stroke-like symptoms (e.g., facial numbness or weakness).

Treatment: How to Relieve Barometric Pressure Headaches

To treat a barometric pressure headache, you need to identify the type of headache it's causing.

Medication is the primary treatment for a migraine headache triggered by barometric pressure changes.

Most people with migraines obtain relief with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen). More severe migraine attacks typically require a prescription triptan, like Imitrex (sumatriptan).

What Is a Triptan?

Triptans interact with serotonin (a brain chemical) receptors in the brain and are available in multiple formulations (e.g., tablets, nasal spray, and shots).

Other migraine drug options include Reyvow (lasmiditan) and calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) blockers, like Nurtec ODT (rimegepant).

Tension-type and high-altitude headaches can be treated with an over-the-counter (OTC) pain reliever like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or ibuprofen.

Headaches attributed to airline travel may be eased with a triptan or an NSAID, like ibuprofen or Aleve (naproxen). Nondrug therapies could also be helpful, including applying pressure to the area of pain or using deep-breathing or other relaxation techniques.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Most headaches, including those triggered by weather changes, are not problematic. However, some situations or headache qualities warrant further investigation.

For example, seeing a healthcare provider is essential if your headaches occur more often than before or feel different from prior ones.

Likewise, see a healthcare provider if you have a headache and are pregnant, just gave birth, are over 50, or have a history of cancer or suppressed immune system.

If you are experiencing a headache and other acute mountain sickness symptoms, descend or seek medical attention if your symptoms do not improve or if they worsen within a day or two of being at high altitude.

Seek Emergency Medical Attention

Go to an emergency room or call 911 if you are experiencing:

  • A sudden headache that becomes severe within a few seconds or minutes
  • A fever/stiff neck, painful red eye, seizure, fainting, or stroke symptoms
  • A headache after a head injury
  • Drowsiness, confusion, or severe exhaustion at high altitudes, as these symptoms could indicate cerebral edema (excess fluid on the brain)
  • Breathlessness at high altitudes, as this could indicate pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs)

Preventing Barometric Pressure Headaches

If barometric pressure changes trigger your migraine or tension-type headaches, it's sensible to have the headache medication that works for you at hand. Consider keeping a medication supply in your car, desk drawer, purse, or backpack.

Additionally, even though you cannot control the weather, you can manage exposure to other potential headache triggers, including caffeine, sleep deprivation, stress, and environmental factors like strong smells and loud sounds.

Migraine Preventive Medication

If you experience frequent or prolonged migraine headaches, you may be a candidate for preventive migraine therapy, including medications taken by mouth or injection.

High-altitude headaches may be prevented by taking Diamox (acetazolamide). This prescription drug is started one day before ascending in elevation.

Additional preventive strategies for high-altitude headaches include:

  • Traveling to higher altitudes gradually with days of rest in between
  • Staying hydrated
  • Sleeping in lower elevations at night 

Due to its rarity, it's unclear exactly how to prevent headaches attributed to airline travel. Limited research suggests taking the NSAID Aleve (naproxen) and a nasal decongestant like Afrin (oxymetazoline) before takeoff and landing may be effective.


Barometric (air) pressure changes can trigger a migraine or tension-type headache in susceptible individuals. They can also trigger secondary headaches, including high-altitude headaches or headaches attributed to airline travel.

A barometric pressure headache is diagnosed with a medical history and exam. Treatment depends on the type of headache triggered but typically involves taking an over-the-counter or prescription medications.

A Word From Verywell

Reach out to a healthcare provider or a headache specialist such as a neurologist if you think you are experiencing headaches related to barometric pressure changes. They can help you tease out the diagnosis and devise an effective treatment plan.

Also, while you cannot control the weather, you can adopt healthy lifestyle habits like staying physically active and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. These behaviors will help you fend off headaches and feel your best self.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What barometric pressure level causes headaches?

    There is no known barometric pressure level that definitively causes headaches. The limited research suggests that small barometric pressure changes—even by 5 hectopascals (hPa)—may trigger headaches in susceptible people.

  • Can barometric pressure cause sinus headaches?

    An infection causes a sinus headache within the sinus cavities. Barometric pressure changes do not cause infections but can trigger migraines and tension-type headaches.

    They can also cause facial pain that resembles a sinus headache due to air pressure differences between the outside and inside of your body.

  • Why do I get a headache when the weather changes?

    Weather-related factors like high or low temperatures, humidity, sunlight, and the barometric (air) pressure changes that occur during a thunderstorm may trigger headaches in specific individuals.

    The mechanism behind the headache isn't always precise and varies with the type of headache. Activation of trigeminal nerve fibers and swelling of the brain's blood vessels may play a role. 

  • Is barometric pressure a migraine trigger?

    For some people, yes. Weather-related factors, including barometric pressure, can trigger or aggravate migraine headaches.

11 Sources
Verywell Health 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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By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.