How to Avoid Getting a Migraine Attack When You Fly

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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When you have migraine, your brain is super sensitive to the outside world. The neurological condition can make you dizzy, nauseous, and hypersensitive to lights, smells, and sounds.1 That means that your average plane ride might be a perfect storm of triggers: You’re often surrounded (quite literally) by questionable odors, screaming toddlers, and the occasional jolt of eye-stabbing sunshine.

Air travel sucks for just about everybody—but when you live with migraine, it can feel like absolute hell. However, there are ways to make it to your destination without ending up in a full-blown pain spiral, according to experts. Here are their top tips.

Pack your go-to meds.

For a lot of folks with migraine, taking medications as soon as the throbbing starts can often prevent it from getting worse. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep them in an easy-to-reach spot in your carry-on bag. This might include an over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), like ibuprofen, and a prescription triptan, which can often halt symptoms in under an hour—basically before the drink cart arrives.

Of course, you don’t need to wait for the aching to start; pain relievers can be used preventatively, Kristina Lopez, MD, a headache specialist at the WVU Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute, tells SELF. NSAIDs alone can be really effective, but you might need a triptan if you’ve got an extra-long travel day ahead or your symptoms feel unbearable on planes. You can have a dose of your go-to med 30 minutes before a flight, for example, or whenever you think you’re most likely to need it (like during takeoff and landing). In some cases, a doc can prescribe additional or more potent medications, like a “migraine cocktail,” which is basically a mixture of different treatments for particularly brutal attacks, Dr. Lopez notes.

It’s important to be aware that cabin pressure and altitude changes can also sometimes trigger an episode. So you might want to reach for meds as soon as you step onboard if those things have bothered you in the past, Nicholas Tzikas, MD, MPH, a Yale Medicine Headache Specialist and assistant professor of clinical neurology at Yale School Of Medicine, tells SELF.

Block out awful noises and sensations.

The harsh lighting and loud sounds you often encounter on airplanes—a seatmate who likes to pass the time by shoving a window shade up and down (why?!), for example—can be pretty bothersome for a lot of people with this condition.2 “Even if they don’t throw folks into a full-blown migraine attack, they may still have irritation,” says Dr. Lopez.

Because of this, Dr. Tzikas recommends stashing products in your carry-on bag that can diminish the intensity of annoying stimuli. Lindsey de los Santos, a 46-year-old teacher from Kansas City, Mo., struggles with migraine symptoms when she travels. She keeps a “rescue kit” handy on every flight, which includes an eye mask (to block out bright overhead lighting) and ear plugs (to muffle the rumbling engine or a cranky baby). These types of tools can help you get through flights peacefully, Dr. Lopez says.

Eat before leaving for the airport—and pack a few snacks.

Skipping meals—or snacking in a way you normally wouldn’t back at home (which, let’s be honest, is 80% of air travel)—can also spur an attack, some research suggests.3,4 When you rush to the airport for a morning flight and forgo your usual breakfast, for example, your blood sugar might dip, which is a common migraine trigger.5 Dr. Tzikas recommends slipping a few protein-rich snacks into your carry-on to keep you full throughout your flight.

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