How to Deal With Wildfire Smoke Headaches

Wildfires have become an increasingly common year-round problem in the U.S., especially in the western states. They not only damage landscapes and manmade structures, but can also lead to a host of health problems, particularly respiratory issues and cardiovascular problems. Exposure to wildfire smoke can also cause headaches. The reason for this is complicated, but it does not mean we cannot take steps to avoid headaches as a result of local wildfires. Let us dive into what smoke does to your body and your head specifically so you can be better prepared to prevent the pain and discomfort.

What, exactly, is wildfire smoke?

Wildfire smoke consists of countless tiny particles, each one with a different size and made up of a different mix of partially burned solids and liquids. The energy from the fire that turned a tree or a house into smoke also leaves behind free radicals and other reactive, and therefore toxic, chemical substances on the surface of smoke particles. Due to their small size, these particles are small enough to get into your lungs and pass into your bloodstream. From there they are pumped to the heart and sent throughout the body, which, in turn, can cause a variety of uncomfortable symptoms, including headaches.

Headaches explained

Your head contains a complex system of organs, bone, cartilage, nerves, blood vessels and tissue, making it one of the most sensitive areas of the body. Unfortunately, one of the most prominent sensations we feel in this area is the dreaded headache. We have all experienced at least one kind of head pain, and may have been told that we suffer from tension headaches, migraines, cluster headaches, stabbing headaches, sinus headaches, or one of the many other names that doctors use to help characterize such symptoms. Headaches are often temporary and no cause for alarm, but they can also become chronic and possible indicators of a serious health problem — in which case you should consult with a doctor. If you have the sudden onset of a serious headache, it is also advisable to seek medical attention.

It is difficult to narrow down the cause of any one headache, but the medical community agrees that the physiology of headaches involves how the blood flowing into your head interacts with pain-sensing nerves and brain activity. Chronic headaches like migraines have always had an elusive exact mechanism so most of the research is focused on the indirect causes, such as stress, poor diet or fatigue.

Smoke increases blood pressure

One of the many effects of exposure to smoke from any source is higher blood pressure. Extended exposure can result in hypertension, which is chronic high blood pressure, and in turn lead to headaches. These symptoms are caused by particles not just from smoke but also car exhaust, power plants, or any other place where organic matter is burning.

The composition of the smoke influences how it affects your body. Cigarette smoke, for example, can cause headaches in some, but this is likely a result of nicotine in addition to the particles. Not only does nicotine impact blood flow and pain nerves, but it can also decrease the efficacy of pain medication like Tylenol and Aleve. This is an unfortunate conundrum because people who have chronic headaches are more likely to smoke cigarettes. Quitting can be a challenge for those who suffer with migraines, as well. If headaches during wildfires are a problem, it might help to take any extra steps to avoid exposure to cigarette smoke in the meantime.

While smoke can dysregulate almost any system in your body, some types of headaches are more associated with smoke than others. For instance, migraines are more likely to be triggered by smoke than tension headaches. Your cells are very sensitive to small chemicals they use to communicate internally and with the rest of your body. When reactive smoke particles are floating around in the blood, they are likely to interrupt this delicate interplay. Exposure to air pollution (including smoke) is also linked to all sorts of neurological diseases like dementia and multiple sclerosis in addition to diseases of the internal organs like diabetes.

How to deal with a headache

If you have chronic headaches you should talk to your doctor to get a diagnosis if appropriate. Some headaches may be the result of tumors, strokes, or other injuries and need professional medication attention. But when the headaches are the only problem, there are a handful of ways to help your blood, brain and nerves better regulate themselves.

Reduce smoke exposure: Before trying medication or anything else, remember the physical particles of smoke cause or exacerbate headaches, so just avoiding them can be effective. During a wildfire event, it is best to leave the area if possible. If not, choose one room in the house as the clean room, the bedroom is best since it is where you will spend the night. Seal any windows and keep the door closed as much as possible. If you have an air purifier, put it in your clean room.

Over the Counter Medication: Non-prescription headache medication is the first line of defense for most people with a headache. There are two primary types — acetaminophen, commonly known as Tylenol, and NSAIDs, which are a class of drugs that are typically labeled ibuprofen, aspirin, Motrin, Aleve, Advil, among other names. Tylenol is thought to work on the pain nerves in the head, and has few side-effects so is relatively safer and can be given to children. NSAIDs are any one of a number of drugs that reduce inflammatory chemicals that trigger pain nerves throughout the body. They can cause kidney or liver problems over time and should not be taken for longer than 10 days without talking to a doctor. Both Tylenol and NSAIDs can make existing kidney or liver problems worse and can have negative interactions with alcohol.

Hydration: Some headaches are exacerbated or directly caused by dehydration, so keeping hydrated is always a good plan. This includes avoiding diuretics like coffee and alcohol that may deplete your internal stores of water, and making sure to drink a lot if you are sweating.

Caffeine: This solution should be used with caution. Caffeine in coffee or tea changes the blood flow in your head, which can help to reduce headaches. However, your body can become dependent on caffeine very easily with daily use and will rely on it to regulate blood flow. When caffeine is not available your body can take a day or two to start regulating the blood flow in your brain again, and in the meantime it will not flow as well as when your body is in its natural state, leading to worse headaches in addition to drowsiness and being less alert.

Relaxation: Meditation, deep breathing, and other relaxation techniques can help regulate the nervous system and are effective for avoiding many types of headaches including tension headaches and migraines. While almost anything that relaxes can be effective, alternative techniques like acupuncture may not be as good as pure relaxation.

Alternative methods: There are several herbs and supplements that have at least some promise in helping with headaches. Riboflavin, coenzyme Q10 and magnesium supplements along with butterbur and feverfew have been studied and shown to have a potential impact on migraines. 

If you have chronic headaches and want to avoid them getting worse next time there is a wildfire, there are a few other ways to prepare. Talk to your doctor about any prescription medications that might be appropriate, and ask them about biofeedback. Biofeedback is a relatively new pain management treatment that involves attaching electrodes to the headache sufferer to measure stress and pain nerve activity. The patient then watches their own responses on a monitor and uses a relaxation technique to attempt to calm their stress and alleviate their headache. It is unclear why this is effective, but doctors have been finding some success in using it to treat pain.

Headaches usually result from some type of dysregulation of a body system, so staying fit can help reduce migraines. Maintaining a good diet that is low in inflammatory foods like gluten may also be effective, as can low-carb diets with a low glycemic index like Atkins and keto.

At Molekule we want everyone to breathe clean air and to be prepared when the air is not clean. Keep an eye on this blog or our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for more information on how to do that.

Written by

Haldane King is a molecular biologist by education, a statistician by training, and a researcher by nature. He spent 15 years in the market research world helping to grow all types of companies from pharmaceuticals to software to insurance. Haldane has researched the world of air quality, air pollution, and air purifiers at Molekule and now proudly attends to the Molekule.Science blog.