Escaping fireworks on July 4th

Darkness enveloped the room.

A halo of ice packs barely dulled the pulsating throb inside my head.

The active volcano in my stomach churned, threatening to explode each time the smell of burning sulfur hit my nose.


Sounds, lights, and smells assaulted my nervous system like exploding missiles.

Surrendering had been in vain.

There was no escaping fireworks on July 4th.

It was July 4th, 2000. The sun was just beginning to set and preparations for a family fireworks show had begun in earnest when the migraine I’d been fighting off all day finally hit its peak. Remaining anywhere close to the noises and smells would guarantee a middle-of-the-night visit to the emergency room. Not wanting to disturb everyone’s fun, I quietly asked my husband to drive me home. 

Happy birthday, USA.

July 4th is usually an excuse to let your inner pyromaniac run wild. It’s a nationwide party. Celebrations traditionally include gatherings with family and friends for cookouts, loud music, beer, and of course, fireworks. In small towns across the country, families gather in fields and parking lots to burn thousands of dollars on fireworks symbolizing the bombs that inspired our national anthem.

For people with migraine, the entire day can be a living nightmare.

For years I struggled to make it through the day, often retreating to the dark quiet of my bedroom hours before the fireworks shows ever started. It was especially bad during the years we lived in towns where the use of fireworks was legal within the city limits. The fun would start early in the week and continue for several days after the 4th until neighbors finally used up the last firecracker, sparkler, and Roman candle. The smell of burning sulfur was enough to set off a migraine attack within minutes.

Reducing the load

I finally learned to reduce my trigger load. That discovery increased my odds of enjoying the entire holiday without pain. It’s still a delicate balance. Now that Botox is helping so much, I am interested to see how the day goes this year. Regardless, there is a long list of potential migraine triggers to avoid if I want to have a fighting chance of watching this year’s fireworks show. You might want to keep this list handy, too.

Things to watch out for

  1. Dehydration – Soft drinks and beer flow freely at most cookouts. What a migraineur really needs is an unlimited supply of water with the occasional bottle of Gatorade. Staying well-hydrated is essential.
  2. Heat – Summertime is hot. The heat alone is enough to set off migraine attacks for some migraineurs. Keep your cool by staying inside an air-conditioned room for most of the day. If that isn’t an option, make sure you have creative ways of staying cool outdoors. Ice bags and cooling towels come in handy. If all else fails, dip a towel or bandana in a cooler full of ice and wrap it around your head or neck. Find a nice spot in the shade to rest as often as possible.
  3. Sunlight – Bright sunlight is a common trigger. Wear dark sunglasses that wrap around to protect even your peripheral vision. My favorites are Theraspecs. They are specially tinted to block the spectrum of light known to trigger migraine attacks.
  4. Sleep changes – Getting up early or staying up late is enough disrupt the neurotransmitters involved in the migraine process. Even slight changes can trigger and attack.
  5. Irregular meals – Skipping or going too long between meals causes blood sugar changes that can set of attacks. If you anticipate a long wait between meals, plan ahead by packing a generous supply of healthy snacks to keep your blood sugar stable throughout the day.
  6. Food dyes – Red, white, and blue deserts are popular favorites that can set off attacks if artificial coloring is used. Migraineurs are safer by choosing deserts that are naturally red, white, and blue.
  7. MSG – Most of us know to avoid the obvious sources that are clearly labeled. Potluck cookouts don’t exactly include food labels. Plus, there are lots of hidden sources of MSG. Stick with wholesome, all-natural foods. Avoid chips, dip, sauces,  and convenience items.
  8. Sugar substitutes – Diet soft drinks are obvious sources. Many times, well-meaning guests will prepare lemonade from a mix or sugar-free jello deserts and sweet tea. Even Splenda and Stevia can spell trouble for some sensitive migraineurs. This is one time when you are better off with the high calorie treats loaded with pure cane sugar.
  9. Tannins – Iced tea and coffee (even the decaf varieties) are high in tannins that can trigger an attack.
  10. Tyramine – Citrus fruits, avocados, bananas, and most processed foods are potential problem foods, too.
  11. Nitrates – Hot dogs, sausage, lunch meat, brats, and other processed meat are all high in nitrates. Take along your own nitrate-free options.
  12. Histamine – Untreated allergies and foods high in histamine are potential triggers. Keep the Benadryl handy and don’t forget to take your allergy meds.
  13. Fermentation – Problem foods include sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, sour cream, and even beer.
  14. Fireworks fumes – Any strong smell can trigger migraine attacks, but the burning fumes of fireworks are especially bad triggers because they are actually small explosives.
  15. Loud noises – Fireworks, loud music, children screaming, doors slamming, and more all add up to a sensory assault on the migraine brain.
  16. Flashing lights – It doesn’t have to be a strobe light to set off a migraine attack. Fireworks shows, light flickering between the trees, and even the flashing of sparklers can be enough.
  17. Bonfires – The smoke can set off a histamine response in sensitive migraineurs.


  • Take reasonable precautions by preparing safer alternatives.

  • You may not be able to avoid all potential triggers.

  • With a little planning, you can lower your trigger load and minimize the risk of an attack.

Be safe and have fun!

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