Headaches have many different causes, but one of the main causes can be traced to airborne allergens in the environment. The major type of allergy headache from airborne allergies is the sinus headache.
Headache, Headache, Go Away
The paranasal sinuses are paired open cavities in the skull that surround the nose and eyes. Everyone has four pairs of sinuses: one pair below the eyes and next to the nose (sinus maxillaris), one pair above the eyes (sinus frontalis) and two pairs between the eyes (sinus sphenoidalis and cellulae ethmoidales). When the membrane in the sinus cavity is inflamed, sinusitis and headaches result.
The membranes in sinuses are similar to those in the mouth, throat, eyes and nose. If a person is allergic to an airborne particulate substance such as pollen, mold spores or tobacco smoke, their mucous membranes will likely be irritated, thus, the membranes in their sinuses will also be irritated! The sinuses fill with fluid, swell and press against nerves (especially the trigeminal nerve) and areas adjacent, causing pain in the head. Sinuses can also become inflamed from an autoimmune or immune response that may be allergic in nature. Particulate matter can evoke this type of response as well, but so can odors, vapors and gasses.
Migraines are other types of headaches that can be evoked by fumes, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) or particulate matter in the air. Migraines are very serious headaches and the exact mechanism or source of the pain is currently unknown. However, if the headaches are caused by the environment, it has been shown that cleaner air quality helps decrease the frequency of the headaches. Drugs that help decrease inflammation in neuronal tissue also seem to target the unknown source of the migraine pain.
Oh No! So What Exactly Can I Do?
Other than anti-inflammatory medication, antihistamines or migraine medication, the best thing you can do for your headaches is to avoid the offending substance or substances. This may be easier said than done! If you live or work in a ‘sick building’, you may be unwittingly exposed to mold spores and fungus on a continual basis. You may not have control over your environment or over your exposure.
As an example, one of the major environmental contaminants has been eliminated by law from most workplaces: second hand smoke. Second hand smoke contains over 4000 chemicals, many particulates and cancer causing substances. Non-smokers were often assaulted by this contaminant without their consent all day, every day, simply by work proximity. After laws were passed to maintain indoor air quality and protect workers, it was found that illness and headaches dramatically decreased.
If avoiding the offending substance is not possible, the next best thing is to invest in a good quality air purifier. The American Lung Association recommends air purifiers to families who have trouble with allergies, asthma and sensitivities. If you know what triggers your headaches in the environment, you are better able to understand what type of air purifier you need. For example, if mold, dust, or pollen is the problems, the best air purifier is one with a high efficiency HEPA filter. Medical grade HEPA filters are 99.991% efficient and have anti-microbial properties. Make sure you have a good carbon filter so that the life of your HEPA filter is prolonged.
If your problem is VOCs, odor sensitivities, gas, exhaust or other types of fumes or vapors, the best air purifier for you would be one that contains absorbent material such as activated carbon and/or zeolite. These substances have a large surface area and are highly absorbent, so will take many of the offending substances out of the air. The air purifier should recycle the air in the room at least 4-5 times. If you do not know what your trigger is, the best bet for you is to purchase a mixed use air purifier that has both absorbent material AND a HEPA filter. This way, you cover all bases and will be sure to capture the substances that are causing harm.