We’ve all had those days when we feel invincible. You feel like a rock star as you walk to class, and you know nothing is going to stand in your way of being awesome.
Then a rock falls on your head.
Or at least that’s what it feels like when a full-fledged headache takes over, throwing off your concentration and your ability to do anything for the rest of the day.
In order to understand what causes headaches, it helps to understand what a headache actually is. When the chemicals in your body become imbalanced, your nerves become more sensitive, says Dr. Huma U. Sheikh, a doctor in the neurology department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. This sensitivity causes a headache.
Sheikh says there isn’t really any explanation as to why an imbalance of chemicals causes the nerves to become more sensitive, but a headache is a way for your body to alert your brain to that imbalance. A migraine is a more intense headache that is related to genetics. They often come along with other symptoms like nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light or smell.
Headaches and migraines might seem like they come out of nowhere, but if you take a step back and look at your daily activities and habits, you’ll probably find some standard triggers that are causing your headaches. Once you’ve identified the problem, you can prevent your headaches from ruining another all-star day!
1. You’re dehydrated
Water makes up about 60 to 70 percent of your body. So when you don’t drink enough water, you get dehydrated. This makes your blood thicken, which leads to impaired circulation of blood to the brain, which is a major cause of headaches.
“[When you’re dehydrated], your body’s not in its usual balance, and that makes the nerves feel irritated or oversensitive,” Sheikh says. “The way they respond is by letting you know that something is off, and that’s through a headache.”
It’s easy to get dehydrated when you’re exercising or when it’s hot outside, but it can also happen in the winter due to dry air. Even if you don’t feel thirsty, you should still aim to drink those recommended eight glasses of water per day.
To make it easier to drink enough water, Dr. Alexander Mauskop, founder and director of the New York Headache Center, suggests flavoring your water with lemon or grapefruit juice. You can also carry a water bottle with you throughout the day and track how much water you’re drinking.
Sheikh says that H2O is the best liquid to drink on a regular basis to prevent dehydration, but if you exercise frequently, it’s also important to replenish your body with electrolytes found in drinks like Smartwater and Gatorade.
2. You’ve had too much caffeine
Coffee and caffeinated sodas might keep you awake so you can finish your homework, but too much of them could do more harm than good. Although small amounts of caffeine might relieve a headache, excess caffeine can have the reverse effect by causing withdrawal headaches. Mauskop says that a good daily amount of caffeine is between 50 and 100 mg, while too much caffeine is more than 150 mg per day.
Things get tricky when you start mixing in sources of caffeine other than coffee, tea or soda. Many people might not realize that Excedrin, a popular medicine for headache relief, contains a small dose of caffeine. This over-the-counter pill can be very effective in relieving headaches – in fact, it’s one of the pills recommended by Sheikh – but taking it in combination with other caffeinated beverages might put you over the edge in terms of caffeine intake.
To prevent yourself from going overboard, keep a record of how much caffeine you consume and at what time during the day you consume it. Mauskop suggests limiting yourself to one or two drinks of coffee, tea or soda per day, and make a note of how much caffeine is actually in each of those drinks. You can also find other ways to get that energy boost without caffeine.
3. You drank too much alcohol
You go out to a party. You drink a few drinks… then a few more… and then you wake up with a hangover. These kinds of headaches are usually expected after an almost-too-good night out, but why does a fun night have to be punished by a not-so-fun morning?
Similar to caffeine, small amounts of alcohol won’t be a huge problem, but you will be more prone to having a headache when you drink excessive amounts of alcohol. It can be difficult to say exactly how much alcohol is “too much” because it depends on factors like your weight and how much food is in your stomach to absorb the alcohol. But Mauskop says that for someone who is prone to migraines, even just a sip of alcohol can be too much. He says that generally, more than two drinks could lead to a headache.
Dr. Mauskop is also the creator of Migralex, a pill that aims to replenish your body with everything it lost after a night of drinking. One of the major components in the pill is magnesium, which helps prevent and relieve headaches in many different ways. It opens up the blood vessels, works on serotonin receptors and relaxes muscles. Magnesium is often lacking in a college student’s diet because alcohol, in addition to stress, caffeine and chronic illness, depletes magnesium, Mauskop says. The recommended daily intake of 400 mg of magnesium per day can be easily be taken as a supplement pill, and it’s also found in vegetables, nuts and fish.
4. You’re stressed
Sometimes it seems like stress is synonymous with college life. Sheikh acknowledges the fact that it’s difficult to live a stress-free life in college, and in fact, most women begin getting headaches when they start college. But headaches are caused not only by stress, but also by everything that comes along with it, like lack of sleep and poor nutrition. When you’re stressed, you might not eat as healthily as you should, and you might have an irregular sleep schedule. All these factors throw off your body’s chemical balance and can lead to a headache or migraine.
Although it might be difficult to devote time to anything other than studying at times, exercise is one of the best ways to combat stress. Mauskop recommends doing aerobic exercise for 30 to 40 minutes three to four times a week. Meditation is also very helpful in calming your body and clearing your mind. If you need some guidance for meditation, Mauskop suggests doing yoga. This combines exercise with meditation, working your body and relaxing your mind. Sheikh explains that when you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which in turn release stress. Endorphins really are good for you, as they help you de-stress and fight headaches.
5. You’re PMSing
Ahh… good old PMS. If it wasn’t bad enough already, it can also give you headaches on top of the cramps and bloating. Sheikh says that especially with migraines, hormones play a huge role in causing the pain, and when your body goes through PMS, there is a shift in estrogen that brings your body out of its normal balance. Many women know when they’ll get their period because they find themselves getting headaches a few days beforehand.
Sheikh says premenstrual headaches can be treated similarly to everyday migraines or headaches by taking over-the-counter headache relief medicine. But it’s important to make sure that it’s really your period that’s causing the headache, and not a bigger medical problem. She first suggests keeping a headache diary so you can verify the cause of your headaches. Once you’ve confirmed the problem and the pattern of your headaches, Sheikh suggests then taking Motrin a day or two a few days before you’re expecting your period. This is a preventative measure that could decrease the chances of a headache occurring.
6. You’re wearing the wrong glasses or contact prescription
An incorrect glasses or contact prescription can cause you squint so you can see more clearly. Squinting causes muscle tension around the eyes and forehead, and that can lead to a headache, Mauskop says. Whether you’re squinting to see a computer screen up close or a blackboard from the back of a classroom, an incorrect prescription puts unnecessary stress on your muscles, which causes pain.
Even if you’re not squinting at the computer screen, your eyes might be closer to the screen than they would be if you were wearing the proper prescription. So although laying on your back with your computer on your chest might be super comfy in bed, Mauskop says that small distance between the screen and your eyes is not comfortable for the muscles around your eyes and forehead. He suggests that you keep enough distance between your eyes and the computer screen to allow you to sit up straight with your computer on a desk.
If you find yourself squinting to see things up close or far away or bringing things so close to your face that you can smell them, it might be time to go to the eye doctor. Set up an appointment with your eye doctor to get an up-to-date prescription so you can relieve yourself of this headache trigger. Plus, it’s nice to be able to see things clearly!
7. You have a sinus infection
Although sinus pressure might not always be a trigger for headaches, it can be more harmful for people who are prone to migraines.
“For people who get migraines, it’s like a straw on the camel’s back,” Sheikh says. “Everyone has the ability to get a headache, but people who get migraines have more straws on the camel’s back, and any little thing that’s off can make them more prone to get headaches.”
Mauskop says that sinus infections aren’t an extremely common cause of headaches, but they can cause sinus headaches. When this occurs, a sinus infection fills up your sinus cavities with fluid and pressure, making you feel stuffy and congested. You can identify a sinus infection by the thick, green discharge that will come from your nose.
If you have a headache because of a sinus infection, you need to know if it’s viral or bacterial, because the two are treated differently. A doctor or your campus health center can be helpful in determining this. “Most infections and colds are viruses, and that can’t be solved from antibiotics,” Dr. Mauskop says. Instead, you can irrigate your sinuses, take a decongestant or apply heat to your sinuses with a warm compress, and, as always, drink lots of fluids. If the sinus infection is bacterial, then antibiotics can help the situation.
Even if none of these triggers seem to apply to you, you might still find yourself prone to headaches and migraines—and that’s normal. Sheikh says that even with preventive measures, approximately one in five women will experience migraines.
“There are medications you can take, either when you have a headache or when you want to prevent them from even coming,” she says. These over-the-counter medicines include Advil, Tylenol, Motrin or Excedrin. “But in those cases when you feel like you’re not able to control them on your own, it’s important to speak to your doctor.”