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, alcohol and lack of sleep.

But for some migraine sufferers, they report rather unusual triggers, some of which may be 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 meets the criteria of a migraine according to the International Headache Society. It likely occurs 15 to 60 minutes after a person washes their hair (without drying it).

A Study that Analyzed 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 patients (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 5 migraines per month due to hair wash were instructed to take naproxen sodium (Aleve) or ergotamine one hour prior to their hair wash.

Those who had more than 5 migraine attacks per month and those in Group 3 were given one of a variety of migraine preventive medications: propranolol (Inderal), divalproex (Depakote), topiramate (Topamax), or flunarizine—a blood pressure medication not available in the U.S.

Hair Washing Headache Study Results

In Group I, the patients took a preventive medication 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 a preventive medication prior to washing their hair. 15 of the 18 reported improvement. 27 of the 45 participants were on daily migraine preventive medication and 18 of those 27 improved.

In Group III, 12 of the 38 participants were given a preventive medication 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.

What Do These Results Mean?

Hair wash is a unique migraine trigger and may be improved by taking standard migraine preventive therapies.

Why Does This Headache Occur?

The why behind this migraine trigger is a mystery. Is this phenomenon limited to women in India? 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. So, is there a genetic linkage? Or is there a more scientific reason—the wet hair stimulates temperature-sensitive receptors in the brain?

To rule out other factors, this study looked at potential other triggers of the migraines, like the smell  of the soap or shampoo or the temperature of the water, to determine whether these were the actual migraine triggers. However this did not appear to be the case—so wet hair appears to indeed be the culprit.

The Bottom Line

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 not take any medication without the guidance of your physician first.