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Traveling With Migraine – How To Avoid Airplane Headache And Other Migraine Pitfalls

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Traveling with migraine and avoiding the inevitable airplane headache is…challenging. The excitement, extensive planning and packing, remembering to pack all of our meds/supplements, and planning for head friendly meals away from home are just a few things to navigate. I have found that if I plan ahead, I can mitigate some of the normal triggers that happen when I travel. Stick with me while we explore these tips. 

** While Migraine Strong writes about the latest in migraine treatments, this is not medical advice. We are patient educators and all information you read should be discussed with your doctor.

Have a plan to prevent travel migraine

Anyone with migraine knows there is no such thing as the perfect traveling plan. The best laid plans are usually gleefully thwarted by migraine. Building the plan starts when the trip is booked. Whether driving or flying, lists can keep us organized. 

  • Consider the length of travel, the place and who might be traveling with you when making your lists. 
  • Start backwards from the date of departure – Make a list starting on the date of departure and work backwards to figure out when to start packing. This includes when to order the supplies needed for travel and limits being surprised the day before departure when it might be difficult to get essential supplies. Getting your suitcase out a week early to start the packing process can help eliminate the stress let down attack which can happen when rushing and pressed for time. Also include kenneling any pets, turning off the water in the house, setting the thermostat, etc. 
  • Downtime for the day after travel – If possible, build in a little downtime the day after arrival. The airplane headache can last for a bit. Personally, I am most likely to be hit by a migraine attack the day after travel day if it doesn’t happen on the plane. This day can be used for me to recover and allow others to explore. If I don’t have an attack, I’m exploring right along with them.
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Why do we feel better away from home sometimes?

This is a conundrum we often see discussed on social media. Traveling in other states or countries seems to facilitate a complete lack of attacks. Why does this happen? Is it the food? Or maybe the difference in weather? 

The answer is that it is complicated and often a combination of many things. Being away from our home and work stress can be liberating. And spending time with loved ones can be cathartic, especially when away from the hustle and bustle of every day life. For me, when someone asks the dreaded ‘what’s for dinner’ question, we only have to look as far as the local restaurants. Nothing to plan or cook. Woohoo!! Of course, if you are on a migraine elimination diet, eating at a restaurant can be its own source of anxiety. We’ll discuss some strategies for restaurant dining a little later in the article. 

I recently took a trip to Colorado with my family and was surprised to go the whole week without any migraine attacks. I did get a bit of altitude sickness, but no headache during the week and no airplane headache either. More tips on avoiding these problems coming up. 

How do we limit migraine triggers during travel?

Whether flights or long car rides, there are a few common strategies that will help reduce your risk of an attack. 

Keep hydrated

Yeah, I know. When will people stop suggesting drinking water to those with migraine? Probably never. Dehydration is a common migraine trigger. And traveling can really take it out of us. Not only is it dehydrating to travel in a car (A/C or heat blowing), but the same is true for plane travel. Even those people not prone to migraine often complain of the dreaded airplane headache. Making sure to keep a water bottle handy can really help reduce the risk of an attack being triggered by dehydration. Water bottles that have markings on the side to tell you how many ounces you have consumed are particularly helpful. 

While we usually want to avoid as many stops as possible when traveling (not to mention the airplane bathrooms), it’s important to build in a little time for bathroom breaks if dehydration is a trigger for you. Better to arrive a little later and feeling well!! 

Eat well

Traveling while on a migraine elimination diet can be stressful. This is one of those situations where you want to strive for good enough and not perfection. To be fair, striving for perfection at home can cause stress and anxiety. Let’s all try our best to ditch the perfection expectation altogether!!

If you are traveling in the car, pack snacks that fall within your plan. Plan ahead for stops, if possible, and know what you will order for meals. If you stop for a meal at an unfamiliar place, don’t stress about potential triggers that might be in some of the available options. Make the best choices you can and move on. Having a positive and accepting attitude can go a long way to helping you weather consuming any hidden ingredients you might be trying to avoid. 

Avoid too much sun exposure

Packing a big floppy hat, sunscreen and a sun shirt can help you avoid getting too much sun at the beach. A Koldtec Ice Towel ($10 off with code MIGRAINESTRONG10) is another way to stay cool. The engineered ice does not sweat and can be worn to help keep you cool. Drink lots of water to help replace fluids from sweating or exercise. Staying hydrated is also super important while hiking or skiing at higher altitudes. And it goes without saying to pack a great pair of sunglasses.

Sleep well

Headache specialists recommend following a sleep routine. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day is helpful. There is some flexibility to the sleep routine. There is no need to be rigid about the actual times, just stay in the same neighborhood. If you want to have a later dinner or see a movie, be ok with letting the schedule be flexible. Sometimes we can cause more stress for ourselves if we decide to try to be perfect when being on a slightly looser schedule will benefit us the most. 

I was recently in New York City for a few days and in the middle of the night, we had some noisy trucks park outside our hotel for several hours. Having a set of ear plugs makes all the difference when we have these unexpected challenges show up. A sleep mask or a NodPod (save 15% with code MIGRAINESTRONG)is also super helpful for blocking out lights, whether they are outside or in the room. Why are the digital clocks so bright in hotel rooms? Am I right?!

Pack your medications and supplies

Traveling with a stocked emergency kit is essential to anyone with migraine. I usually have one that is small, easily accessible and in my bag. Having our trusty supplies at our fingertips is necessary to head off an attack or treat one that is at the point of no return. We particularly like what comes in the Migrastil Travel Kit. The bag is just the right size for adding in our individual medications and supplements too. The kit contains a Migraine Stick, Soothing Shoulder and Neck Cream, Anti Dehydration drops, Nausea Inhaler, an eye mask and ear plugs. Receive 10% off with MSTRAVEL10.

Making sure I have my emergency kit as well as my preventive meds in my carry on is imperative (or in the front seat in the car). Lost luggage means lost medications if they are packed in checked bags. And while I always hope for the best, I plan for the worst…delays. There is just about nothing worse than being delayed at an airport unless it’s being delayed for hours inside an airplane on the tarmac with no supplies!

Be prepared for the unexpected

As mentioned above, unexpected delays can cause all kinds of havoc. Whether stuck in a plane or in traffic, always have supplies to avoid the ‘hangry’ attack. Drinks and some safe crackers or granola bars can head off the impending ‘I skipped a meal’ attack. 

Flight success and avoiding airplane headache 

If you have experienced airplane headaches before, or are susceptible to high altitude headache, talk with your doctor about the following options. 

  • Dexamethasone – Is a steroid that has been shown to be effective in preventing high altitude headache (1) A low dose (4mg) the day before, day of and day after flying can offer protection against airplane headaches or migraine attacks. 
  • Diamox (acetazolamide) – This prescription preventive medication is used also to treat altitude sickness. Taking Diamox prior to and during your flight may help you avoid a migraine attack. (1) If you want to learn more about how Diamox can help with pressure and weather related attacks, read our article on a migraine forecast.
  • Acute medication – Headache specialists suggest premedicating prior to your flight if you are susceptible to airplane headaches or migraine attack during flights. Keep in mind that this goes towards your total for the week/month so if your are towards the chronic end of the migraine spectrum, use this option with that in mind. Ginger is always a good option as well and our article on ginger for migraine can give you the needed information. A decongestant like pseudoephedrine can help prevent an attack and can be taken prior to your flight as well. Check with your doctor to see if they recommend any of these options. 

Essentials for the airplane headache emergency kit

  • Emergency Kit – Always have your emergency kit packed and ready to go. All kits are a bit different but some helpful things to consider packing would include (Benadryl, prescription acute medications, ibuprofen, naproxen, Dramamine, valium, Ginger, ear plugs, ear buds, sunglasses, Migraine Shields glasses, ice bag or empty Ziploc for emergency ice packs, eye mask for darkness etc.)
  • Water Bottle – Take an empty refillable water bottle with you that you can fill in the airport (beyond security). Fighting dehydration is key during air travel to avoid headaches from flying or full migraine attacks. Stainless steel bottles won’t sweat and will keep water cold longer.
  • Head Friendly Snacks – Choose some safe snacks for you to eat on the plane. Especially if there is a long delay on the tarmac.
  • Benzodiazepine – A low dose of this prescription medication can be super helpful if you are traveling with vestibular migraine and are concerned about getting a vertigo attack while on an airplane. Ask your doctor about having this rescue medication on hand.
  • Magnesium glycinate – An extra dose of magnesium (we like Pure Encapsulations) can be helpful at the start of an attack. This is particularly true for those with vestibular migraine. Explore our supplement dispensary for a special discount for our readers.
  • Blisslets – These acupressure bands provide relief from dizziness using pressure points in your wrists. (Get 15% off with code MIGRAINESTRONG15)
  • Notes App – If you have difficulty communicating during an attack, add a few lines to your Notes app on your phone that you can point to and communicate with others. This could be as simple as ‘Having a migraine attack and can’t speak’, ‘Could you please get me a drink of water?’ Whatever you find could be helpful during an attack. 
  • If you are traveling with medications and supplements, make sure to check the FAA website for more information. You can also check there for any COVID guidelines. 

Essentials for flight comfort

  • EarPlanes – These ear plugs help your ears compensate for the pressure in the airplane cabin. They help my ears stay unclogged and drown out extra noise in the cabin. There are two sizes, adult and children. My smaller ears feel better using the children size. These can be used for two flights. 
  • Mack’s Flightguard Air Pressure Earplugs – These earplugs work the same way as the EarPlanes, but they are washable and reusable. While these are only available in one size, and they are bigger than the children’s sized EarPlanes, I can wear these for flights and concerts. I have found them to be comfortable enough to wear for several hours. 
  • Sony MH1000XM4 Noise Cancellation Headphones – I like to pair the EarPlanes or Mack’s Earplugs with these over the ear headphones.  These allow me to control what I listen to and block out any other noise from the plane. They fit over my ears entirely and are very comfortable without a lot of pressure on my head. These are a little pricey, but I like that they are comfortable and have an optimizer for adjusting to the change in pressure on an airplane. Another pair with great reviews are the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 noise cancelling headphones. They are less expensive and might be a better choice for the budget.
  • Calm App/Headspace/Insight Timer – These are excellent for guided meditation or if you want to relax or get centered during your flight.
  • Migraine Shields – Having a pair of these glasses will help you to filter out the rays of sunlight or florescent light that you encounter in airports and on planes, as well as the blue light from devices like TV’s, laptops, phones and tablets. You can’t always control the window shades on a plane, so having a pair of migraine glasses can really save the day. (Get 20% off with code MIGRAINESTRONG on Migraine Shields glasses.)

Tips to avoid car travel migraine

Most of the tips above also apply to traveling with migraine by car. A good pair of sunglasses are essential for car travel. For nausea, I find that never having an empty belly is the single most important thing for me and the kids. Empty bellies mean a greater chance of nausea on a car ride even when we don’t have twisting and turning roads. 

Essentials For Car Comfort

  • Ball Cap – This can be another type of hat so long as it can be pulled low to block out the sun. Have you ever driven through trees when the sun is shining through them and there is that strobe light effect going on? Ugh! Sunglasses can’t help this strobe effect. It must be blocked with a hat, hoodie or maybe a sleep mask…as long as you aren’t driving!!
  • Blanket/Throw – If traveling in the winter (or summer depending on your travel companions), having a throw in the car is essential to keeping everyone happy. Especially if you don’t have dual climate controls.
  • Pillow – In case you need a nap. Read our best pillow for migraine article if you are looking for a new one.
  • Memory foam pillow – If you have vestibular migraine, sit on one of these pillows to help absorb extra movement and vibration.
  • Plug adapter – This is great for using a heating pad on long drives.
  • Magnesium roller balls – Peace Love Rally has some amazing magnesium roller balls. They help to relax my neck and shoulders on a long car ride. Can’t recommend these enough. My kids love them too. (10% off with code MIGRAINESTRONG)
  • Cooler – To pack head friendly snacks and drinks.
  • Plastic Container with Lid – This is for a nausea emergency in case you don’t have time to pull over. We have used this more than once for  the kids. Keep it within easy reach. Trust me. 
  • Ginger chews – These ginger candies are wonderful for nausea.

Travel Snacks Ideas:

  • Chips, crackers, pretzels, granola bars
  • Cut up apples and pears
  • Homemade pasta or chicken salads
  • Cheese sticks, chunks of cheese
  • Celery and carrot sticks
  • Strawberries, grapes, cherries, blueberries
  • Sunflower and Pumpkin Seeds
  • Hardboiled Eggs
  • Almond butter (Keto)
  • Coconut butter (Keto)
  • Olives, Jerky (Keto)

Arriving At Your Destination

Are you staying with the in-laws? A friend? Or maybe you have booked a vacation home for a getaway? Have groceries delivered via Instacart shortly after you arrive at your destination. Having your head friendly food show up without any fuss is such a gift. Navigating unfamiliar grocery stores while jet lagged and car weary is a pain. And not explaining or negotiating about your migraine diet is a bit of sorcery that everyone should master. Just food delivered and ready to go. Ahhhhhh. 

Not everyone thinks to pack essentials for being on vacation. I always pack my Allay lamp, heating pad and Koldtec Ice Halo ($10 off with code MIGRAINESTRONG10) Aside from my medications, these are the items I don’t want to be without if I should have an attack. And they are all super portable!

Online research for head friendly meals

Checking out restaurants before you go makes traveling with migraine easier. Having a few standard ‘safe’ orders that you can get at most restaurants will help you order with confidence and enjoy the outing. Most plain burgers, steaks and fish are safe to order with a baked potato with real butter and steamed veggies. Plain french fries with salt as the seasoning are usually fine as well. Many pastas with fresh veggies like a primavera will also be a good choice, just skip the cheese on top. Even salads can be fine if you either take your own dressing or just toss it with salt, pepper and olive oil. 

If these options aren’t available, try not to stress over it. As mentioned above, approach these meals with an open mind and enjoyment with your family. Sometimes that is a great way to overcome a small trigger. 

Obviously, if you have reached the reintroduction phase of the diet, then you have many other options to choose from. These are just a few that we usually recommend. In general, stay away from soups and sauces which will usually have high levels of glutamate or MSG in them. 

We hope you have found some good tips in this blog and have some amazing trips very soon. When you do, we hope you’ll come and tell us about it in out Private Facebook Group. We love to hear about your success stories!!

**The article is updated and refreshed from the original publication date of 11/2019.

References:

  1. https://www.jsomonline.org/SharedScience/2014453O’Hara.pdf

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Traveling With Migraine - How To Avoid Airplane Headache And Other Migraine Pitfalls

I began having migraine attacks when I was a teenager, but was never properly diagnosed until I was an adult. This began 18 years where I was chronic and mostly intractable, resulting in a migrainous stroke in the summer of 2014. By implementing the protocols from the Heal Your Headache book by Dr. David Buchholz and the Migraine Strong Treatment Pie, I have been able to reduce my migraine frequency to episodic and maintain that since 2015. The end result of continuing to practice these tools is being able to actively participate in my life as a wife, mother, family member and friend. My goal as a migraine advocate, educator, and wellness coach is to help others gain more control over migraine. Let us know how we can help.

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