Is Poor Air Quality Behind Your Headache Or Migraine?

The health hazards of wildfire smoke are real and wide-ranging. Here's what you should know.
The Manhattan skyline stands shrouded in a reddish haze as a result of Canadian wildfires on June 6, 2023, in New York City. Over 100 wildfires are burning in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and Quebec resulting in air quality health alerts for the Adirondacks, Eastern Lake Ontario, Central New York and Western New York.
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
The Manhattan skyline stands shrouded in a reddish haze as a result of Canadian wildfires on June 6, 2023, in New York City. Over 100 wildfires are burning in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and Quebec resulting in air quality health alerts for the Adirondacks, Eastern Lake Ontario, Central New York and Western New York.

If you live in the Northeast right now, you’ve likely encountered smoke in the air. Wildfires in Canada have massively affected the area’s air quality, leading to warnings for people to stay inside.

The health hazards of wildfire smoke ― even if you’re thousands of miles away from the source ― are real and wide-ranging. We know that smoke can affect our lungs, leading to coughing or trouble breathing. But there’s another common symptom many people may not immediately realize is a result of smoke: headaches.

In New York City, where the air quality is currently ranked the worst in the world as of Wednesday, many were tweeting about how they started to experience the early signs of a migraine. As I sit here and write this story, staring at an orange, apocalyptic-looking Manhattan skyline, I can feel tension progressively rising in my temples.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, head pain is an expected symptom of wildfire smoke. The conditions can also cause sinus pain and congestion, which can lead to the feeling of a headache.

A study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which analyzed emergency department visits during wildfires in California, found that the smoke’s particulate matter (called PM 2.5) is associated with tension headaches. “As climate change drives longer and more intense wildfire seasons, wildfire PM 2.5 may contribute to more frequent headaches,” the study authors wrote.

Symptoms from wildfire smoke occur because particulate matter can get deep into our lungs and enter our bloodstream, Colleen Reid, an environmental epidemiologist and health geographer with the University of Colorado Boulder, previously told HuffPost. After that point, the particles can travel to other organs and cause inflammation.

There is less known about how smoke affects migraines, but research suggests that inflammation can play a role in triggering them. The NIH study did not find that migraines or cluster headaches were associated with increased wildfire smoke. That said, people are reporting migraine episodes now ― coincidentally, when the air quality is poor.

How To Protect Yourself And Alleviate Wildfire Smoke Symptoms

If you’re feeling the effects of the air quality, there are a few ways to reduce your symptoms and prevent further damage.

First and foremost, stay indoors. Residents of affected areas are advised to avoid the air as much as possible, especially if you’re unprotected. If you need to go outside, wear a high-quality face covering like an N95 mask to help you filter as many particles as possible.

You should also check your home’s air filtration. MERV-13 filters are considered a gold standard for reducing pollution in your home. You can also use a standalone HEPA air purifier to help. There are guides online on making your own air purification systems at home (for example, you can use a MERV-13 and put it in a box fan or in front of your AC unit).

To mitigate a headache, make sure to stay hydrated. You can also use a hot or cold compress to reduce pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Rest in a quiet and dark room. If necessary, medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also help.

It’s important to take your exposure to wildfire smoke seriously ― for the sake of your health.

If you’re concerned about the air quality inside your home while there’s smoke in the atmosphere, an air purifier with a HEPA filter is the most effective against smoke. Below are some of the top-rated versions on Amazon that you can have shipped quickly to your home.

HuffPost may receive a share from purchases made via links on this page. Every item is independently selected by the HuffPost Shopping team. Prices and availability are subject to change.

A mini purifier that's currently over 20% off
Save 21% when you purchase Molekule's mini air purifier at Amazon. It's ideal for smaller spaces like studio apartments, nurseries and home offices. It traps and destroys particles, allergens, mold, viruses and bacteria without making a ruckus. It's whisper quiet, auto-adjusts the fan speed and has a filter status indicator so you know when you need to change the filter. This little beauty is also voice-operated and Alexa compatible, is energy efficient and can be enabled through the Molekule app. The vegan leather handle adds a touch of elegance and makes it even more portable and convenient.

Promising review: "Purchased this Air Purifier because it is FDA approved for killing viruses, but really found it to be so much more than just that. The automated monitoring of air quality and speed adjustment to compensate means you can just turn on the device and not think about it. If you are looking for white noise maker, just turn this on high and it does a great job at that. Finally, the 6 month filter is easy to replace and the app tells you when it’s time to do so. No more carbon vs HEPA replacements to track on different cycles, this is a once every 6 month single filter change." — J.Goke
A whisper-quiet Blueair purifier
This cool cylindrical HEPA air purifier is the perfect size for a bedroom, nursery or kitchen. It captures 99% of common airborne annoyances like smoke, mold, dust, allergens and even virus particles. It comes with two washable pre-filters in black and blue, and you can purchase even more colors for ultimate customization. It has a 4.6-star rating at Amazon and nearly 6,000 five-star reviews.

Promising review: "The proof is in the picture. I just moved into a new apartment and noticed how incredibly dusty my room was. I bought this air purifier and have had it running non-stop since I got it which is about a week now. You can see how much the pre-filter has caught. The inside filter definitely has changed color since I first set it up. Air quality definitely has improved and there is noticeably less dust on my furniture. Very happy with this unit for a bedroom of about 130 square feet." — Rowrowrowyourboat
Or a highly-rated Coway purifier for larger spaces
If you want to use a HEPA air purifier in an even larger space, the Coway Airmega 200M is a great choice (Wirecutter named it one of the best air purifiers you can buy). It will work in spaces up to 361 square feet, and its auto mode will kick into higher gear when it senses that your air quality is compromised. It's got three layers of protection: a pre-filter, deodorization filter and True HEPA filter, and in addition to removing 99.999% of 0.01-micron particles, Coway says it also removes 99% of volatile organic compounds and odors. The filters are extremely easy to replace and/or wash when needed.

Promising review: "I bought this to keep the air clean during California wildfire season. It does the job handily in my room, which is about 300 sq ft. (and also very dusty because it is an old house and my room is a converted porch.) Each of my roommates also has one of these air purifiers, so we are all now fans (no pun intended). The setup directions were clear and the setup itself was not challenging. It is extremely easy to see how to operate the device and to understand what it is telling you about air quality." — Heather
An air purifier with a 360-degree intake
Levoit's Core 300 HEPA air purifier has an all-around air intake and can clean smoke and allergens from up to 1,095 square feet. It also has a sleep mode for even quieter operation and the option to turn off display lights so they won't disturb your slumber. The triple-layer filtration system includes a pre-filter, HEPA filter and activated carbon filter. And Amazon buyers love it: The Core 300 has a 4.7-star rating from more than 87,000 users.

Promising review: "This might be the best product I’ve ever owned. I know that sounds dramatic but it’s truly life changing. I have terrible allergies including being allergic to cats which I have two of. This helps tremendously. I put it in the same room as their litter boxes and the smell is completely gone. Like 100% gone. Not just masked or covered up. I’ve tried so many things to help with the smell and nothing has ever worked like this. I actually watched a clump of fur in the air get sucked into the machine… wow!! Super easy to set up, doesn’t take up too much space or look bad, love everything about it! Highly recommended especially if you have allergies and/or pets. If you’re considering getting this, get it!!!! (Also side note, I just used the regular filter that comes with this. I know they have one that’s specifically made to help with pet odors and allergies but so far I find the original one works great for me and my cats but if you have more animals or stronger odors and find the regular doesn’t work, try the pet-specific one?!) (I also use it on the highest setting and it does have a “white noise” sound to it but it doesn’t bother me personally and I don’t find it extremely loud.)" — Amanda
An air purifier you can control from your phone
This Levoit Vital100S will not only clean the air in a space up to 1,110 square feet, but you can see real-time air quality readings, set a timer, create an automated schedule, check filter life and turn it on and off all from a smartphone. The True HEPA filter is joined by a washable pre-filter and an activated carbon filter for optimum efficacy.

Promising review: "We purchased this to have as an all-around home air purifier. We have one in the back of the house and one in the front. Our daughter has allergies and I have asthma and with pets we wanted to do the best we could to keep our home air as clean as possible. We keep ours in auto mode at all times. Generally it stays in a 'good air quality' mode and when I pass it I end up putting my hand above the output to make sure it is actually running as you cannot hear it at all. The first night we had it we made BLT's and as always the bacon smoked up the house a little and the air purifier kicked in and went into 'bad air quality' mode and the house was cleared within15 minutes easily. And this was even with the air purifier in the next room over. The quality of it seems really well made, it is easy to manage and the filters are easily accessible which is nice for cleaning the large particle grate. Would definitely recommend this item to others." — Erin
A customizable BlueAir 211+ for large rooms
With one-button operation, this chic HEPA purifier from BlueAir is both powerful and easy to use. It scored well in performance tests by Consumer Reports, and is suitable for spaces of up to 540 square feet. Like the smaller BlueAir model above, the washable pre-filters come in an array of colors so you can match your mood or decor. A boost mode takes care of pressing air quality issues and the machine is quieter than a whisper on low.

Promising review: "This is the best HEPA filter I've ever seen and the quietest! This specific model of the BlueAir Pure HEPA filter recently was rated by a well known consumer product testing website and magazine as being one of only a few recommended and those others are not silent. It is efficient on low, medium, and high fan settings. On low and medium it is truly so quiet I do not hear it operating. It is quieter than my central air unit and purifies the air in a very large room. It comes with two washable pre-filters so one can be washed and air dried while using the other. My only problem now is waiting for my other HEPA filters to die so I feel justified in replacing all of them with more like this one." — S. Douglas

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