Links Between Asthma and Headache
Last updated: October 2022
You may not think of asthma and headaches as being related, but apparently, they are. Actually, as with any modern study, many of us older asthmatics observed the link long ago, long before peer-reviewed journals started talking about it. Yet now they’re talking about it and studying it, and that’s good. It’s almost vindication.
I remember having frequent and really bad headaches when I was growing up, sometimes to the point that I would lie in my bed and cry. I remember going through a period once where I tried a new headache medicine every couple of months, and none of them did any good. Basically, like living with allergies and asthma, I just had to deal with it.
Tips for managing headaches with asthma
An empathetic nurse once gave me some tips on how to deal with headaches. One was to tie a scarf tightly around my head. My mom and grandma would encourage me to lie down, and would often prepare warm, wet washcloths and place them over my eyes or forehead. Needless to say, none of these were of much use.
As an adult, I still get headaches from time to time, and some are horrible, to the point I find myself lying in my bed crying like I did as a kid. Truly, they get to the point you cannot think. I actually had to leave work once because of a headache.
In 2007, I was having frequent headaches. It was to the point that I was taking acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen, or aspirin about every day. Actually, at this point, I was on an aspirin kick. I started taking them every day to prevent headaches. Feeling I was invincible, I ignored the warnings on the bottle.
This came back to haunt me, as I ended up with a GI bleed, lost a bunch of blood, and ended up in the hospital overnight. Since then I have to take Prilosec every day, and my doctor says I will never get off it. I suppose this is my punishment for being a dummkopf and abusing over-the-counter medicine.
Too much pain medicine?
Then I learned that taking all this pain medicine had consequences. This was when I read an article at the Mayo Clinic about rebound headaches. Here I learned that if you take medicine for headache every day this may actually cause headaches, making your situation worse.1
Plus medicines like ibuprofen can be hard on your stomach, and aspirin is a blood thinner. I knew about the blood thinner part, just didn’t care so long as it treated my headaches.
Ready to try something different?
So, obviously, it was time to try something different. While there wasn’t any good headache medicine when I was a kid, this was 2007, and there was a new medicine called (Ultram) tramadol. This medicine worked great until I read that it, like opiates, is probably addicting. So, my experiment with tramadol ended.
A few years ago my doctor introduced me to sumatriptan (Imitrex). He told me to only use it for the most severe headaches that do not respond to tylenol or ibuprofen. He told me that it may cause refractory headaches if I use it more than a few days in a row. So far, I have heeded these warnings.
To me, Imitrex is the best headache medicine ever. Now I just make sure I have one in my pocket, and that’s all I need to prevent headaches. In this way, it is similar to having an albuterol inhaler in my pocket, where just having it prevents asthma. Ever work yourself into an asthma attack because you were worried about not having your rescue inhaler? That used to happen to me a lot. Now, thanks to Advair, this is no longer the case.
Thanks to Advair, I rarely use my rescue medicine, and thanks to Imitrex I rarely use Imitrex. In fact, I rarely get headaches nowadays. And when I do, I just take a couple ibuprofen and that usually does the trick. If not, I take a Tylenol, and that does the trick. Only when that doesn’t work do I start thinking Imitrex. And, most often, I don’t need it. Which is good, considering Imitrex costs $1 a pill. And don’t get me started on the cost of living with asthma (idea for another post, perhaps).
What causes headaches, anyway?
What causes migraines? What are migraines? How are they different from headaches? These are all questions I have investigated in recent days. I do not want to go into them, as they are all covered by the experts over at Migraine.com
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned suspecting the asthma-headache link long ago. As a kid, I often pondered the link. What causes my headaches?
- Is it anxiety? That’s what my doctor said. I think that’s why my parents would tell me to go to bed and relax.
- Is it medicine? The packet for nearly all my asthma medicine lists a headache as a common side effect.2,3
- Is it allergies? These can cause nasal stuffiness? Sinusitis? Allergic rhinitis? These can all trigger sinus headaches and migraines. In fact, one study has researchers thinking that the same cytokines and inflammatory markers responsible for asthma and allergy symptoms may also trigger migraines.4,5
Other links between asthma and headaches
I live about a half mile from Lake Michigan and have been taking my kids there nearly every day. The water is very warm this time of year, kind of like bathwater. Anyway, my daughter Laney asked me the other day, “Dad, why don’t you ever dunk your head under the water?” How do I explain to a seven-year-old that I don’t because allergens in the water get in my nasal cavity and sinuses and cause headaches?
Chlorine from pools does the same thing, only you don’t have to dunk your head to suffer from it’s effects. I still take my kids to pools, however. Small pools are okay, outdoor pools (like the one at the condo we stayed at in Orlando during spring break) are better. But large chlorine infestations that are indoors, like Great Wolf Lodge, can result in a severe sinus irritation, headaches, and even asthma. But I digress. That’s another idea for another post.
Current research on asthma and headaches
Today the link between a headache and asthma is well researched and documented. One study showed that asthmatics are 1.5 times more likely to have headaches than non-asthmatics.6 Another study concluded asthmatics have a 50% greater risk of developing chronic migraine than non-asthmatics.5
In fact, according to our own Dr. Green from Migraine.com, it may even be genetic.7
We already know asthma is genetic, and therefore hereditary. Now we learn headaches may be hereditary too. Headache genes might sit right next to those pesky allergies and asthma genes, giving you an amalgamate (a nice mixture) of annoying medical conditions. Throw anxiety into this genetic mix, and gastrointestinal reflux (GERD), and you have the asthma syndrome. This is me. This is what I live with.
As I’ve written before, having a chronic disease is not something we sit around saying “woah is me” about. We don’t do that. We learn to cope. We tough it out, and we make lifestyle adjustments where we can. And we are thankful for new medicines, like Imitrex, when they come around. And we are thankful for communities like ours, and like Migraine.com.
Do you experience asthma headaches?
Has laughter ever triggered your asthma?