Is There a Link Between Sneezing and Migraines?

How Persistent Sneezing May Trigger Your Migraines
How Persistent Sneezing May Trigger Your Migraines. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

If you are a migraineur and you also have frequent sneezing and congestion, you may be surprised to know there is a potential connection between your head pain and your sniffles.

Let's take a closer look at the connection between migraines and rhinitis—a health condition associated with frequent sneezing.

What Is Rhinitis?

Rhinitis is a common medical condition that affects the nasal passages. Here are the symptoms it may cause:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny Nose
  • Stuffy nose
  • Nose itching

What Are the Types of Rhinitis?

There are a number of types of rhinitis:

  • Allergic Rhinitis: People with allergies have this type of rhinitis. Typical triggers include tress, grass, pollen, mold, house dust mites, and pets.
  • Nonallergic Rhinitis: Nasal congestion and postnasal drip are main symptoms of this type of rhinitis. Typical triggers include smoke and strong fragrances, like car exhaust, cleaning products, or perfume.
  • Mixed Rhinitis: This is the most common type, and includes both allergic and nonallergic rhinitis.
  • Occupational Rhinitis: This type is caused by allergens or irritants in an individual's place of work.

Is There a Link Between Migraines and Rhinitis?

A study in Cephalalgia examined the potential link between migraines and rhinitis. In the study, a questionnaire was mailed to approximately 18,000 individuals and returned by sixty percent of them. Six thousand of the respondents were identified as having migraines, and of these 6000 migraineurs, 66 percent were identified as also having rhinitis.

In addition, of the migraineurs, the questionnaire inquired about the number of migraines per month, as well as the person's disability associated with their migraines, assessed by the Migraine Disability Assessment Scale (MIDAS)

Results showed that the frequency and disability of migraines were higher in individuals with rhinitis. Of the different types of rhinitis, individuals with mixed rhinitis were the most likely to experience an increased frequency of migraines and have more disabling migraines than those without rhinitis.

Another study found that the chance of having migraines, especially migraines without auras, was over eight times more likely in people with allergic rhinitis than in healthy, control subjects. Interestingly, this link between migraines and allergic rhinitis was stronger with increasing age.

What Does This Mean?

Remember a link implies a possible relationship or association. It does not mean that one medical condition directly causes another. That being said, one of the biggest lessons to take away from this study is the potential coexistence of both rhinitis and migraines, especially in people who have both headaches and frequent sneezing or runny noses.

To dig a bit deeper, it's important to note that too often a headache in a patient with rhinitis is misdiagnosed as a sinus headache when it's really a migraine. This notion is supported by a study in Headache in which 63 percent of patients who self-diagnosed themselves as having a sinus headache actually met criteria as having a migraine. In fact, only 3 percent were found to have a headache attributed to the sinuses.

What Is The Scientific Cause Behind This Potential Link?

The scientific basis for this link is not clear. Do migraines trigger or worsen symptoms of rhinitis or vice versa?

One hypothesis involves the trigeminal nerve, a large nerve in the face that supplies sensation and some motor or movement function. Rhinitis-associated inflammation and swelling in the nose may stimulate trigeminal nerve endings, causing pain signals to be sent to the brain, which may trigger the development of a migraine.

Other experts suspect that the release of chemicals from local immune system/inflammatory cells (for example, mast cells releasing histamine) in allergic rhinitis (hay fever) may trigger migraine development in certain people.

Overall, more studies are needed to better understand this link.

A Word From Verywell

If you have both migraines and rhinitis, discuss your symptoms with your doctor. Effectively treating one condition, especially your rhinitis, may improve the severity and/or number of headaches you have. Additionally, what you may be self-diagnosing as a sinus headache may, in fact, be a migraine—and the treatment is different, so be sure to get the proper diagnosis.

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