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Feature Article Five Tips to Head-off a Holiday Headache

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The holiday fantasy often includes a beautifully decorated home, meaningful family time, delicious meals, cheery parties and exciting shopping trips culminating in thoughtful presents and world peace. Unfortunately the pursuit of that fantasy can often lead to a pounding headache.

"During the holidays, people get out of their routines and stress often increases,” said Erin Guiliano, DO, a resident physician at Samaritan Family Medicine Resident Clinic in Corvallis. “For people who are prone to headaches or migraines that can mean they are more likely to trigger an episode."

Guiliano reports tension-type headaches are the most common and usually occur because of a trigger such as stress, anger, hunger, noise or allergens. The headache often begins in the temples or the back of the head and neck. The feeling can vary from just being sore, to pressure or like a band is being tightened around your head. A tension headache usually goes away on its own, but an over-the-counter pain medicine can help. 

For those who suffer from migraines, the pain usually begins as an ache that turns into a throbbing or pulsing pain at the temples or the front or back of the head. The pain can last several hours to several days. Migraines are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. Stress, an irregular sleep schedule, hormones and diet can all trigger an episode. Treatment may include over-the-counter or prescription medication and alternative therapies such as relaxation training 

"This time of year the best thing people can do is practice good self care and try to manage stress as much as possible,” said Guiliano.

In order to help prevent an aching head, Guiliano shares these tips:

Get Enough Sleep

There’s enough to do during the holidays to keep a houseful of elves busy. But cutting short your sleep can lead to a headache or migraine. Make sure you get your regular amount of sleep and try to get up at the same time every day, even on weekends.

Watch What You Eat (and Drink)

Make regular, healthy meals a priority. Skipping meals can lead to a headache or migraine, so if you know you’ll be running errands all day or eating dinner late, pack some snacks for the road.

If you are indulging in holiday treats, keep in mind that foods that are high in salt and sugar can be triggers for a headache. Caffeine, carbonated drinks and red wine may also affect some people. Drink alcohol in moderation.

Drink Plenty of Water

Dehydration is a common trigger for headaches. During the busy holiday season, people often forget about simple things like drinking water. Set a goal to drink a total of 64 ounces of water each day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink (this is a sign that you may already be dehydrated). Some people find that setting phone alarms can be helpful. One 8-ounce glass of water per hour for eight hours should help prevent dehydration-related headaches.

Reduce Strong Odors in Your Environment

Avoid overpowering smells if you are sensitive to them. Pine boughs, candles, cinnamon-scented pine cones or even fresh-baked goods may smell like the season, but they can also initiate a headache.

Schedule Down Time

Make room in your schedule for a break. Taking time for a walk with the dog or to read a book can help manage the stress of everything else that’s happening. You probably won’t be able to avoid stress entirely during the holidays, but being able to relax periodically will help keep you going.

If you aren’t sure what causes your headaches, try and narrow down potential triggers. Knowing the source of the headache can help you avoid an episode in the future.

If your headache persists, please talk with your primary care provider. To learn more, read about headaches in our health library, then test your knowledge with our headache quiz.