A headache is pain or discomfort in any part of the head. There are several types of headaches, and many factors can cause them. Air pressure and other factors can cause headaches during travel.

Headaches are one of the most common medical issues most people experience. They can be temporary or chronic. An international classification of headaches distinguishes between primary forms, which do not have a clear cause, and secondary forms, which result from another condition.

A travel headache falls into the category of a secondary headache or a worsening of a different primary headache because it has a clear trigger, such as pressure or nerve disturbance from motion sickness. This can develop when a person travels by air, land, or water.

Additionally, stress and dehydration during travel can indirectly lead to headaches.

In this article we explore what travel headaches are, their symptoms and causes, and how to treat and prevent them.

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Airplane headaches are headaches that relate to air travel. This type of headache creates an intense but temporary pain at the front of the head. It typically resolves within 30 minutes of landing.

Associated symptoms

Airplane headaches do not typically have any symptoms besides a sharp, stabbing, pulsing, or jabbing sensation in the front of the head.

Rarely, people may experience symptoms such as dizziness and paresthesia, or “pins and needles,” spreading from the left thumb to the hand and around the lips.


Airplane headaches may result from pressure changes during takeoff and landing.

Studies have suggested two possible reasons for this: A pressure change in the cabin may cause the cerebral arteries to dilate, decreasing blood pressure in the brain. Alternatively, rapid pressure change may cause tissue injury, or sinus barotrauma. However, more research is necessary to further investigate these theories.

Other kinds of headache can result from dehydration and fatigue during air travel, particularly during long-haul flights. Air travel can also cause motion sickness, which can lead to headaches and trigger migraine episodes. See the section below for more detail on motion sickness.

Car travel and other forms of road travel can cause motion sickness.

Motion sickness often causes headaches and can trigger migraine episodes in some people.

If people are susceptible to migraine episodes, they are more likely to experience motion sickness.

Associated symptoms

Motion sickness can affect people in different ways and may cause symptoms that affect the gastrointestinal system, autonomic nervous system, and central nervous system. The main symptom of motion sickness is nausea.


Motion sickness is a complicated syndrome that arises when there is a difference between the actual and expected sensory input. This means that the stimuli a person’s senses receive differ from what they expected based on the environment. Essentially, the senses send mixed messages to the brain.

The contrast between the cues for motion sickness causes a disturbance similar to poisoning. This may be why motion sickness can cause nausea and vomiting. Headaches may occur to warn the brain that something is wrong.

Motion sickness can also result from other forms of travel, such as sitting on a train or traveling on water.

Associated symptoms

Even though the vessels are different, the symptoms of motion sickness may be the same across many forms of travel.

The main symptom is nausea, but people may also experience symptoms that affect the gastrointestinal system and the autonomic and central nervous systems.


The concept behind motion sickness is the same for all forms of transportation. The body’s senses perceive the movement differently from each other. This causes confusion, which leads to a person feeling sick.

This also causes headaches and can lead to migraine episodes in people who experience them.

Treatment for any kind of headache typically involves taking medication, starting with a basic pain reliever such as acetaminophen.

The best way to treat a headache is to manage the cause. For travel headaches, the cause is usually motion sickness.

Certain strategies can help reduce motion sickness during travel. Options for short-term management include:

  • reducing body movement
  • focusing on a stable point such as the horizon
  • avoiding reading
  • facing in the direction of travel
  • controlling the steering wheel
  • controlling breathing

Medications can also help with motion sickness, but they may come with side effects and are not always effective.

Ways to help prevent motion sickness include:

  • getting plenty of rest before traveling
  • staying hydrated
  • fasting
  • avoiding alcohol and nicotine

Understanding the triggers of travel headaches is key to avoiding them. Each person may have unique triggers for their travel headaches.

A person may be able to avoid a headache by mentally preparing for the situation and trying to increase their tolerance for triggers. People who need medication may need to sedate themselves before travel to reduce risk.

Below are some frequently asked questions regarding travel headaches.

What is a traveling headache called?

The correct term for a traveling headache during air travel is “airplane headache.” The syndrome that usually causes headaches during travel is called motion sickness.

Can air travel cause headaches?

Yes, air travel can cause headaches.

How to stop travel headaches?

There are pharmaceutical remedies for travel headaches, such as pills and pressure bands. If travel headaches result from motion sickness, it can be helpful for a person to face in the direction of travel. Sucking on hard candy can help keep the ears equalized, but be cautious of choking if the vehicle is going over bumps or traveling on an unsteady road.

What does an air pressure headache feel like?

An air pressure headache, or barometric pressure headache, can feel like a migraine episode with or without aura or a tension-type headache.

The term “headache” refers to several types of pain that can occur in areas of the head. Some people experience headaches during travel by land, air, or water.

People commonly refer to a headache during air travel as an “airplane headache.” This is a headache that likely results from pressure changes, generally during takeoff and landing.

Other headaches that arise during travel are typically due to motion sickness. This is a syndrome that arises when the different senses experience movement in different ways, causing confusion in the brain. Motion sickness causes a trigger similar to poisoning, so a headache may develop as a way to warn the body that something is wrong.

Researchers are still investigating the causes of travel headaches and the different ways bodies respond to motion. Headache triggers vary from person to person, and understanding which aspect of travel causes headaches can help a person avoid them in the future.