Migraines can be different from person to person, or even from one migraine to the next. This page gives information on "triggers," a term that healthcare providers use for things that can cause migraine.

Having migraines more often, or having migraines that are more painful than usual, are also risk factors for chronic migraine. Healthcare providers consider migraines to be chronic if you are having headaches 15 days or more each month.

Migraine triggers

You can get a migraine for no particular reason. But many people notice that certain things can cause their migraines. Healthcare providers call these "triggers." Your triggers might be different from another person's, but common migraine triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Hormone changes (eg, menopause, periods, and taking birth control pills or other hormone medications)
  • Not drinking enough water and other fluids
  • Fasting or eating foods that trigger migraines (the foods listed in the table below can be triggers for some people)
  • Changes in weather or seasons
  • Oversleeping or undersleeping
  • Smells, sounds, or lights (eg, perfume, loud sounds, or bright or flickering lights)
  • Pain or injury (eg, neck pain, concussion, or something pressing on your head)

Other triggers include smoke, becoming overheated, exercise, and sexual activity. Headaches can also be a side effect of many medications.

Foods that can trigger migraines
Caffeine—doctors recommend less than 200 milligrams per day
Any food that is very cold or very hot
Alcohol—some people are especially sensitive to red wine
Foods containing sulfites, a type of preservative
Raw onions
Monosodium glutamate, also called “MSG”
Aspartame, an artificial sweetener
Aged cheeses, such as blue cheese or aged cheddar
Oranges, grapefruit, and other citrus fruits—doctors recommend no more than ½ cup per day if you are sensitive to these fruits
Nitrates and nitrites added to foods as preservatives—the thiamine mononitrate in bread is actually Vitamin B1, but other nitrates and nitrites can trigger headaches

Learn more about managing your diet from the National Headache Foundation.

Keep a headache diary

Not everyone has migraine triggers. But you could have some you don't know about. Keeping a record of your migraines is the best way to learn about possible triggers.

A record of your migraines is also called a headache diary. It can help you remember:

  • When you had your migraines and how many days you had a migraine each month
  • How bad the pain was
  • Any other symptoms you had around the same time
  • What medication or other treatments you tried and how well they worked
  • Triggers—things you think might have caused the migraine (eg, a certain food or situation)

The diary also gives your healthcare provider important information. Print a headache diary here.

Consider installing an app on your mobile device to record your headache diary. Many apps are free and are designed specifically for people with chronic migraines such as iHeadache, Migraine Buddy, Headache Diary, and My Migraine Triggers.