Can Food Allergies Cause Headaches? | MyFoodAllergyTeam

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Can Food Allergies Cause Headaches?

Medically reviewed by Deborah Pedersen, M.D.
Posted on May 14, 2024

People with food allergies or caregivers of children who have them often face many challenges. For example, they need to read ingredient labels carefully and handle unexpected allergic reactions. Headaches have emerged as a common concern among the many common food allergy symptoms. One member of MyFoodAllergyTeam asked, “Does anyone else get severe migraines from their allergies?”

In this article, we’ll share what the research says about food allergies and headaches as well as tips on managing these symptoms.

Understanding Food Allergies

When you’re aiming to tie a particular symptom to your allergies, it’s important to understand how food allergies work. Food allergies occur when your immune system — a system of defense cells in your body — mistakenly identifies a specific food protein as harmful and launches an attack. This attack triggers a cascade of symptoms that are different for everyone. Food allergy symptoms can range from mild discomfort to a life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.

Common food allergens include:

  • Shellfish
  • Tree nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Wheat
  • Soy

Most Common Symptoms of Food Allergies

In people with food allergies, allergic symptoms appear soon after eating the food. Common symptoms include the following:

  • An itchy rash anywhere on the body (hives)
  • Swollen lips, face, or eyes
  • Sneezing or a clogged nose
  • Stomach pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Coughing, wheezing, or trouble breathing

Although headache is not among the most common symptoms of an allergic reaction, everyone reacts differently to their food trigger. For example, dizziness and lightheadedness may feel the same as a headache in some people. Similarly, clogged sinuses can cause pain in the face, eyes, and forehead.

Let’s see what the research says about headaches and food allergies.

The Link Between Food Allergies and Headaches

The relationship between food allergy and headache has not been well established in the literature. Some studies have reported a link between food allergy and headache, but additional research needs to be done to determine whether there is a strong association.

Food Sensitivity and Migraine

According to the National Headache Institute, foods can sometimes trigger migraines. In people prone to headaches, food sensitivities, intolerances, or allergies can lead to headaches. Common food intolerances include aged cheese, artificial sweeteners, and chocolate. Although this is not specific to food allergy, many people experience migraine from food triggers.

One member explained this phenomenon: “I often get ‘allergy migraines,’ but usually the foods that cause this are foods that I’m sensitive to, not the foods that I’m allergic to.” Another shared, “I find sugar is one of the worst things for my headaches.”

Environmental Allergy and Sinus Headache

The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology indicates that allergies — especially allergies to environmental factors such as pollen or pet dander — can trigger a specific type of headache called a sinus headache. This type of headache develops when allergies cause inflammation and swelling in the sinus cavities located in your head. The sinus cavities get clogged, causing pressure to build up. These headaches cause pain around the blocked sinus, such as on the cheek and forehead.

Members of MyFoodAllergyTeam talk about their headaches in comments like these:

  • “I’m having a bad day because I woke up with a sinus headache due to the weather.”
  • “I have a crazy headache — pain in the back of my head like I was hit in the head. It’s daily, but worse today.”

Other Causes of Headache

There are numerous types of headaches, including cluster headaches, migraine headaches, and tension headaches. Some of the most common triggers for primary headaches are lifestyle factors, including:

  • Alcohol (especially red wine)
  • Sleep changes
  • Poor posture
  • Skipped meals
  • Stress

People with these or other health conditions may experience headache pain as a symptom. This is called a secondary headache.

Preventing and Managing Headache

Treating repeated headaches that may be associated with food sensitivity may require careful attention to what may be triggering it. Keep a headache diary, including the timing and severity of headaches, time of day, food and water intake, and any other factors you think are important, to figure out the cause of your headaches.

To help manage the symptoms of headache at home, consider over-the-counter pain medicine like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen, if recommended by your doctor. If these aren’t effective, your doctor may prescribe stronger medication to provide better relief. Other home remedies include:

  • Closing your eyes in a quiet, dark room
  • Applying hot or cold compresses to your neck
  • Massaging the affected area
  • Sipping small amounts of caffeine

Usually, headache symptoms will go away on their own. Prevention is key. Learning what causes your headaches, whether it’s food allergies or something else, can help you feel better and have fewer headaches in the future.

When To Seek Medical Attention

Signs that your headache is an emergency and you should seek medical attention right away include:

  • A sudden, very severe headache
  • Confusion
  • Trouble speaking or understanding speech
  • Passing out
  • Stiff neck
  • Numbness, paralysis, or weakness on one side of the body
  • Nausea or vomiting

If you’re experiencing frequent or severe headaches, or if they’re disrupting your daily routine, speak to your primary care doctor or neurologist to get evaluated. Whether it’s related to your food allergy or another factor, there is treatment available to help prevent and reduce the severity of your headaches. If you think you have an undiagnosed food allergy, ask an allergist about allergy testing.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyFoodAllergyTeam is the social network for people with food allergies and their loved ones. On MyFoodAllergyTeam, more than 40,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with food allergies.

Do you have food allergies and experience headaches? What symptoms do you have with your food allergy? What advice do you have for other people living with food allergies? Share your tips and experiences in a comment below or on your Activities page.

    Posted on May 14, 2024
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    Deborah Pedersen, M.D. has specialized in allergy and asthma care as well as pediatrics for over 16 years. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
    Scarlett Bergam, M.P.H. is a medical student at George Washington University and a former Fulbright research scholar in Durban, South Africa. Learn more about her here.

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