Can Smoking Cause Headaches and Migraines?

June 21st, 2020

Can Smoking Cause Headaches?
Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the United States, according to the CDC. But aside from killing up to half of its users, smoking can also trigger headaches and migraines.

Almost every person in the world has had a headache at some point or another. Some people get them sporadically, only experiencing one or two mild episodes per year. A few others, however, are more susceptible to getting frequent headaches or migraines, which may be triggered by a wide range of factors, including smoking (tobacco, marijuana, e-cigarettes) and inhaling secondhand smoke.

The relationship between smoking and headaches is not entirely understood and is likely complex and unique for every headache sufferer.  A smoking headache or smoking migraine can happen as a result of inhaling or being exposed to cigarette smoke. People who experience frequent headaches or suffer from migraines may be more susceptible to getting a headache after smoking.  Smoke can also be a headache or migraine trigger for non-smokers who are sensitive to odors or allergic to smoke.

Both smoking and headaches are associated with psychiatric disorders, especially depression.  It is possible that the psychiatric illness is the cause of both smoking and migraines or headaches for some people.  Also, smoking may double the risk of medication overuse headaches (MOH),  a headache disorder characterized by recurring headaches or migraines due to the over use of pain medications (prescription or over-the-counter). Although a high rate of  smoking has been found among people who suffer from medication overuse headache, there  may be many factors that mediate this connection.

Keep reading to learn more about how smoking cigarettes, cigars, marijuana, and other tobacco products contribute to headaches and migraines, and what you can do to prevent them in the future.

Cigarette Smoking and Headaches

No matter which way you look at it, tobacco is harmful to your health. Each year, more than 480,000 people in the United States die from tobacco-related illnesses. That means that smoking kills more than car accidents, guns, illegal drugs, and alcohol combined.

Smoking can lead to a multitude of health complications. Lung cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and infertility are among the most alarming adverse effects. But smoking cigarettes also affects many of your body’s essential functions, like immunity and circulation.

When you smoke, you inhale more than 7,000 different chemicals. The vast majority of the substances present in cigarettes and other tobacco products are toxic or poisonous, and at least 69 of them have been shown to be carcinogenic.

Many of the harmful chemicals found in cigarettes are known to contribute significantly to headache disorders. However, carbon monoxide and nicotine are particularly detrimental for people who experience headaches often. This is how these two substances may be causing your headaches:

Carbon Monoxide

Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless, flavorless gas produced by burning fuels that contain carbon, like gasoline, coal, and cigarettes. Considered highly poisonous, high levels of carbon monoxide can kill a person in a matter of minutes, though long-term exposure to low levels can be just as dangerous.

When you inhale carbon monoxide, it enters your lungs and gets carried over to your bloodstream. There, it binds with hemoglobin, reducing your red blood cell’s ability to carry oxygen to other parts of the body. Too much carbon dioxide in the bloodstream can deprive vital organs of oxygen, damage your tissues, and may cause death. Headaches are one of the most common symptoms of too much carbon monoxide in the body.

Most people have some level of carbon monoxide in their blood. Depending on where they live, their occupation, and other factors, the normal level of carboxyhemoglobin (the combination of carbon monoxide and hemoglobin) for a nonsmoker is less than one percent. Heavy smokers, on the other hand, may have levels of as much as 20 percent.

The good news is that quitting smoking can make a drastic improvement in your health. Within just two days of giving up cigarettes, your body will eliminate most of the carbon monoxide from your blood, and levels will return to normal.

Nicotine

Nicotine is a chemical compound found in the tobacco plant. When consumed, it enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain. Once there, nicotine over-stimulates the central nervous system, elevating your blood pressure, increasing your heart rate.  Nicotine causes blood vessels to constrict (narrowing)  which decreases the blood flow to your brain and the covering of the brain (the meninges). Decreased blood flow leads to depressed brain activity, which is a major component of migraines and headaches. In addition, reducing the blood flow to the meninges can induce severe pain, which may be felt in the back of the head or in the face.

It is important to note that nicotine can make it more difficult for you to get rid of your headache once it starts, because it affects your liver’s ability to break down headache medicine. The result is that the medication you’re counting on to give you pain relief won’t work as well, just when you need it most.  Nicotine is also highly addictive, and when used for an extended period, it changes the chemical balance of many brain structures. Quitting nicotine suddenly disrupts this balance, causing uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms like headaches and anxiety. Fortunately, most nicotine withdrawal symptoms – including headaches and migraines – subside after a few weeks, but the positive effects of quitting cigarettes and tobacco products last forever.

Marijuana and Headaches – The Weed Hangover

Few substances are more controversial in the medical world than marijuana. Over the past few decades, the availability of medical and recreational marijuana has increased, and new evidence has shown that cannabis may be helpful for some conditions like certain forms of epilepsy and multiple sclerosis. But the research on medicinal marijuana is still in its early stages, and many questions still remain.

Little is known about the effects of marijuana, or weed, on migraines. In theory, marijuana has natural compounds called cannabinoids that bind to certain receptors in your brain and ease pain signals. But despite what many people think, it’s also possible to get a headache from smoking marijuana. Some call it a ‘weed hangover;’ these are symptoms that show up a few hours or up to a day after using marijuana and usually go away on their own. While there is not enough research surrounding weed hangovers, anecdotal reports suggest that some people experience headaches, nausea, fatigue, and other symptoms after using cannabis.

Common symptoms of ‘weed hangover’ include:

  • fatigue
  • lethargy
  • brain fog
  • dry eyes and mouth
  • headaches
  • mild nausea

Marijuana Withdrawal Headaches
Weed headaches may also be caused by weed withdrawal. Although cannabis is much less addictive than cigarettes and alcohol, or drugs like cocaine and opioids, it can produce  withdrawal symptoms when regular consumers stop suddenly. Weed withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • headaches
  • nausea and loss of appetite
  • increased anxiety
  • insomnia and restlessness
  • decreased sex drive

Smoking Headache Relief

If there is not an underlying cause of a migraine or headache, avoiding situations or places where smoking is permitted, or by quitting smoking, many people can reduce the onset of migraines and headaches.  Quitting smoking or reducing exposure to secondhand smoke is especially helpful for those with cluster headaches ( a series of relatively short but extremely painful headaches every day for weeks or months at a time).  It is very important for smokers to stay well hydrated so the body can detoxify from all of the  chemicals smoking exposes you to.  Dehydration is also a headache trigger so drinking plenty of water can help avoid headaches.  Stress and smoking go hand and hand for many people.  Stress causes the muscles in your neck and shoulders to tighten and restrict blood to your brain.  A relaxation regimen is key whether it means finding your happy place and going there, massaging the muscles in your neck and  just under the  base of your skull, deep breathing, taking a long bath, drinking tea or coffee or lying quietly in the dark.  Consider taking dietary supplements known to reduce the symptoms and effects of stress on the body.  Less stress in your life can mean less smoking as well.

If you are getting headaches regularly, it is always a good idea to consult your doctor.  If you smoke more than 10  cigarettes a day, you should also consult your doctor if you decide to quit smoking to discuss ways to manage your withdrawal symptoms.  They can monitor your health, and may be able to provide you with access to prescription medication, tips to quit smoking  or information about support groups in your community.

If you don’t smoke very much and you want to stop cold turkey,

  • Choose a specific date to stop smoking.
  • Make a list of your personal reasons for quitting including all of the health benefits
  • Remind yourself that the withdrawal symptoms are only temporary.
  • Reach out to friends and family for support.
  • Join a support group.

Nutritional Support for Neurological Comfort
Magnesium, plus the herbs Feverfew, Boswellia and Ginger are well known ingredients for providing fast-acting nutritional support to migraine and headaches sufferers.  Consider trying one supplement that contains all four of these ingredients:  MigreLief-NOW

What You Should Know About Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke combines smoke from a burning cigarette and smoke exhaled by a smoker. The smoke that burns off the end of a cigarette or cigar actually contains more harmful substances than the smoke inhaled by the smoker, as there is no filter it must pass through.This means people who are around smokers might have a higher risk of smoking-related disorders. There is no risk-free level of exposure to secondhand smoke and even short-term exposure can cause health problems and  potentially increase  the risk of heart attacks. There are two types of secondhand smoke; side stream smoke comes directly from the burning tobacco product, and mainstream smoke is the smoke that the smoker inhales.

If you are a non-smoker but are exposed to secondhand smoke on a regular basis, your body will still absorb nicotine and other harmful substances.  These dangerous substances linger in the air for approximately 4 hours and breathing in these particles for only minutes can harm you.  Secondhand smoke causes approximately 7,330 deat hs from lung cancer and 33,950 deaths from heart disease each year. Not only does secondhand smoke contains hundreds of chemicals that can cause headaches, it contains chemicals known to be toxic or carcinogenic, including formaldehyde, benzene, vinyl chloride, arsenic ammonia and hydrogen cyanide.

It’s important to note that there are a number of studies that do not support the association between migraines or other headaches and smoking. These conflicting results tell us that the relationship between smoking and headaches is still not understood and is likely complex and unique for every headache sufferer.

Regardless, smoking does increase a person’s risk of heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer. It’s also linked to a number of other cancers like bladder, cervical, esophageal, pancreatic, and colon cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Does smoking cause headaches?
Yes, smoking can cause headaches. Smoking increases carbon monoxide in your blood, which is a known headache trigger.

Can smoking trigger migraines?
Yes, smoking can trigger migraines. In addition to increasing carbon monoxide levels in your blood, many migraine sufferers find the smell of cigarettes and other tobacco products triggering. Nicotine causes decreased blood flow leading to depressed brain activity, which is a major component of migraines and headaches.

Will quitting smoking cure my headaches?
If you have a headache disorder, quitting smoking will not cure your headaches. However, when you stop smoking, your body eliminates carbon monoxide and other harmful chemicals from your bloodstream, your nicotine levels get depleted, and your circulation improves. Quitting smoking may or may not stop your headaches, but their may be an improvement in symptoms, depending on the type of headache.  On the other hand, the nicotine from smoking interferes with many drugs, and can keep your medications from working.  This is why doctors often prescribe higher doses of medications for smokers.  Any change in smoking habits can alter the effectiveness of drugs and should be discussed with your doctor.

Can e-cigarettes cause headaches?
Yes, e-cigarettes or vapers can cause headaches. Vapers contain strong chemicals (including nicotine) and artificial flavoring agents that can give you a vaping headache. Propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin, two base ingredients of vape or e-juice, are known to cause dehydration, which is a known headache and migraine trigger.

Can smoking marijuana cause a headache or migraine?  
Yes. If you are prone to Migraines, then smoking marijuana may trigger the attack of a migraine and associated headache with it.  However, the severity of the pain varies from individual to individuals and this depends upon the person general health conditions and the amount of marijuana intake.

Is secondhand smoke dangerous?
Yes. Dangerous substances linger in the air for approximately 4 hours and breathing in these particles for only minutes can harm you, cause headaches and increase your risk of heart disease, and cancer.