Hair Wash as a Migraine Trigger

The Science Behind this Unusual Trigger and How It Can Be Treated

Can Washing My Hair Cause a Headache?. Beauty Photo Studio/Getty Images

People who suffer from migraines are highly aware of their personal triggers—many of which are commonly shared among other migraineurs, like certain foods, sunlight exposure, alcohol, or sleep deprivation.

Certain migraineurs, though, report rather unusual triggers, some of which are unique to their geographical home. For instance, in India, hair washing or head bath has been reported as a migraine trigger—and may even be a trigger for you or a loved one. 

What Is a Hair Wash Headache?

A hair wash headache triggers a migraine, so it causes a throbbing, often one-sided headache that is moderately to severely painful and is worsened by any physical activity like climbing stairs or walking. This migraine-replicated headache occurs 15 to 60 minutes after a person washes their hair (without drying it), and may be associated with nausea and/or vomiting, as well as light or sound sensitivity.

Research Behind Hair Wash Headaches

In a study in Cephalalgia, 94 of 1500 patients from a headache clinic in India with either migraine without aura (96 percent) or migraine with aura (4 percent) reported hair wash as a migraine trigger. The majority of the patients were women with an average age of 40.

As part of the study, the participants (who reported hair washing as a trigger) filled out a survey, and based on the results, were divided into three groups:

  • Group I: Hair wash was the only trigger for their migraines -- 11 patients
  • Group II: Hair wash was a trigger for some migraines but not all -- 45 patients
  • Group III: Hair wash was a migraine trigger, but only in combination with other triggers, like going out in the sunlight or sitting in front of an air conditioner -- 38 patients

The patients were also given medication to prevent their migraine attacks.

Participants who had fewer than five migraines per month due to hair wash were instructed to take the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) Aleve (naproxen sodium) or Ergomar (ergotamine) one hour prior to their hair wash, while those who had more than five migraine attacks per month, and those in Group 3, were given one of a variety of migraine preventive medications. 

These migraine preventive drugs include:

  • Inderal (propranolol)
  • Depakote (divalproex sodium)
  • Topamax (topiramate)
  • Flunarizine—a blood pressure medication not available in the U.S.

Results

All of the participants in Group 1 took a preventive medication (either Aleve or Ergomar) prior to washing their hair. Nine of the eleven patients reported a positive response with no hair wash headache.

In Group II, 18 of the 45 participants were given Aleve or Ergomar prior to washing their hair, and 15 of the 18 reported improvement. On the other hand, 27 of the 45 participants in Group II were given a daily migraine preventive medication and 18 of those 27 improved.

In Group III, 12 of the 38 participants were given Aleve or Ergomar prior to washing their hair. 10 of the 12 reported improvement. 26 of the 38 participants were on daily migraine preventive medication and 18 of those 26 improved.

Implications

Hair wash is a unique migraine trigger and may be improved by taking standard migraine preventive therapies. In fact, this study suggests that taking Aleve or Ergomar prior to a hair wash may be more effective than a daily preventive medication.

Why Does This Headache Occur?

The why behind this migraine trigger is a mystery, and experts wonder if this phenomenon is limited to women in India, implying some sort of genetic linkage. To support this, another study in Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology found that 21 out of 144 Indian medical students with migraine (14.5 percent) also reported hair washing as a migraine trigger. In addition to genes or cultural factors, experts suspect some sort of scientific explanation—possibly, wet hair stimulates temperature-sensitive receptors in the brain, which then triggers a migraine in susceptible people.

The authors of the former study did their due diligence to rule out other potential migraine-triggering factors like the smell of the soap or shampoo or the temperature of the water. However these factors did not appear to influence migraine development, so wet hair appears to indeed be the culprit.

A Word From Verywell

Hair wash is a migraine trigger, that may or may not be limited to people of Indian ethnicity. Regardless, if you do notice that hair washing causes your migraines, please speak with your doctor. A migraine preventive medication may be useful, based on the above scientific study results. Of course, remember to only take a medication under the guidance of your physician to ensure it's safe and right for you.

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