Entering the “Driving with a Migraine Zone”

By Wanda

It never fails. You have a wonderful vacation planned, noted all the best places to stop, got packed early, got your vehicle loaded the night before, your migraine meds and aids are tucked safely away, and went to bed feeling wonderful. Then the inevitable happens: BAM! You wake up at some point in the wee hours of the night with a full-on migraine.

Nothing like a simple really bad headache, no, that would be too easy. All the symptoms are there: the pain, the sensitivity to light and sound, the nausea, and probably a few more… You are about to enter the Driving with a Migraine Zone. It’s a zone I’ve spent a lot of time in as a single mother with a history of intractable migraines.


Doctors and other medical staff will all tell you do not drive with a migraine, do not pass “GO,” and please pay them the $200.00. However, there is no place in all of the webs of the internet to find sound medical advice on driving with a migraine.

“Just Say No” seems to apply to doing anything with a migraine, but driving presents special complications. The most difficult thing about driving with a migraine is that you have to in most cases. Sure, we’d rather curl up in a ball in the back seat rolled up like a sad sushi roll with all our go to migraine aids, but that usually isn’t a option. Even if there is someone to help you with the drive, co-piloting with a migraine is just as miserable. There are a few tricks that can help make things a bit easier, though.

How to Navigate the Roads of the Migraine Zone

1. Medication mayhem:

You know to take your medication as soon as the migraine or prodrome hits. What makes the Driving with a Migraine Zone so difficult in the beginning is NOT being able to take your first choice of medications. Driving while medicated is dangerous, irresponsible, and just not advised.

The Driving with a Migraine Zone means you treat the symptoms and not the migraine. First step is to get some over the counter analgesic or NSAID in you with some caffeine. This will get you started. The caffeine will give you a boost of energy to get your trip started, but remember you need to stay hydrated as well as caffeinated.

2. Here comes the sun:

Lets take the evil side symptoms and treat them one by one: first and foremost the photophobia – you MUST have sunglasses. The more pair, the merrier! Even if you have sunglasses you normally use, buy a few different pair with a variety of lens types. This way you are prepared for the light and can adjust your lenses to suit your migraine’s needs.

Don’t forget to take advantage of the car’s sunshades as well, it can become a rather fun traveling game adjusting the shades with the path of the sun. A baseball cap can help, but that is an individual preference as ill fitting hats can be a trigger. Go carefully into the light, dear migraineur.

3. Nagging Nausea:

If you’ve made it this far into the Driving with a Migraine Zone, you know the nausea is coming. There isn’t anything better in the world, in my opinion, than peppermint for nausea. This comes from someone who has liquid, orally dissolving tablets, AND regular nausea medication. Think about this — peppermint comes in tea, gum, hard mints, soft mints, TAFFY, peppermint patties and candy canes. Just the action of sucking on a peppermint can help nausea. I keep a stash of non-melting peppermints in my car.

4. Let’s talk liquids:

Hydration helps the nausea and the migraine. We started this with coffee, and talked about peppermint tea, but electrolytes are what keeps our bodies hydrated. There are a number of “sport drinks” on the market with Gatorade being the old standby. Personally, Vitamin Water and Smart Water are my go-to hydration choices. They offer the electrolytes of Gatorade with out all the salt and sugar. Most of larger grocery chains have their own label, and I’ve found the generics to be just as good.

My trick is to carry a 2 quart pitcher in the car at all times, as well as a water bottle, and a traveling coffee mug. Tea is a comfort to me, so the cold brew tea in the 2 quart pitcher is perfect for a car trip. You can also stash Crystal Light (according to your sweetener tolerance) in the car as well. Most gas stations are happy to let you fill up with cold water, ice, or even hot water for a nominal fee or even for free.

5. Safety first!

Now, on to the actual driving: stay off the main roads until you have a feeling about how the migraine is going to treat you. Once you find yourself on the interstate, look for the tractor trailer trucks; they are your friends! You can easily find one or two to follow giving you something larger to focus on and the assurance truckers know what is going on miles and miles down the road.

When I worked over the weekends at the amusement park, truckers were my guardian angels. I’d leave school, find a truck to follow for an hour to get to the exit, work the park until close, and then go get coffee where all the truckers got theirs. I’d find someone headed south, and follow them to my Granddaddy’s exit. In the morning, I’d be at the park for opening, work through close, find another trucker to follow south, sleep, eat, and repeat. Closing on Sunday meant finding a trucker headed north to Washington, DC and following them to my home exit. I still find truckers at Sheetz, Wawa, Spinz, or just on the road and follow along when I have a migraine.

6. Make wise decisions:

The last bit of advice is to avoid driving into the sun or along smaller roads covered by the shadows of trees. If you positively cannot be late getting somewhere, pack everyone in the car as soon as you can and take as many breaks as you need…or no

I prefer to drive straight through when in pain, just to get it done. If the migraine wakes you at 3am and you planned to be on the road by 6am, try a mild abortive (triptan) if you think it will help. If it’s going to be one of those migraines, and you have to go, just head out. Make sure you are aware of any visual changes or slowed down response times, and have someone to co-pilot with you until you are comfortable as you can be in the Driving with Migraine Zone.


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