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.
Smoking 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 and inhaling secondhand smoke.
A smoking headache or smoker’s 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. Some research even shows that migraineurs who smoke may have an increased risk of stroke.
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.
Can smoking cause 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.
The number of cigarettes you smoke may influence your risk of getting a migraine. A study published in the Journal of Headache and Pain found that smoking 5 or more cigarettes a day could trigger migraines and that, in general, smokers have more migraine headaches than non-smokers.
The research involved 300 medical students who were well trained in identifying a migraine from another type of headache, like tension or cluster headaches. According to Dr. Pascual, the lead researcher in the study, “smoking is a precipitating factor of this type of headache, as the prevalence of active smokers is one third higher in migraine sufferers and there is a direct relationship between the number of cigarettes consumed and the frequency of migraine attacks.”
Though there is no proven mechanism for why smoking increases the frequency of migraines, it is possible that the nicotine and other harmful substances in cigarettes generate excessive amounts of free radicals, causing substantial oxidative stress, which is known to contribute to inflammation, which may then affect the nerves.
Harmful chemicals in cigarettes
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 you headaches:
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 is a chemical compound found in the tobacco plant. It is a vasoactive substance which means it has an effect on blood vessels. When consumed, nicotine 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, and narrowing your blood vessels. It constricts blood vessels resulting in a reduction of blood flow towards the brain and its coverings known as meninges. Decreased blood flow causes depressed brain activity and severe pain.
Nicotine is 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
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. In one research study published in the Journal of Pain, investigators found that using cannabis reduced headaches and migraines by 50 percent, and patients reported a reduction in migraine severity of 88 percent.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
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.
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 from your bloodstream, your nicotine levels get depleted, and your circulation improves. All these factors
Can e-cigarettes cause headaches? Yes, e-cigarettes or vapors 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 I get headaches from second-hand smoke? Yes! Second-hand smoke is very dangerous and according to the researchers, undiluted sidestream smoke contains many harmful chemicals and in greater concentration than cigarette smoke inhaled through a filter.
If you are a smoker and also get migraines or headaches, limiting the number of cigarettes you smoke or quitting altogether is a healthy option.
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