How Alcohol Causes Headaches

Headace, Health Topics

This article has been reviewed by our editorial board and has been approved for publication in accordance with our editorial policy.

After a late-night party, do you get headaches the very next morning? Or after a cup of wine, does your head feel heavy an hour later? These experiences are not only familiar with chronic drinkers but also to mild alcohol consumers. There are explanations as to why you are facing such inconveniences. Continue reading to understand the reasons behind your headaches after having a good time.

Does alcohol cause headaches?

Yes. Since long back, people have linked aching head experiences with the consumption of alcohol. About one-third of patients who have migraines complain about alcohol as a trigger of their headaches. Studies show that people with migraines tend to consume a lesser amount of alcohol than those without migraines. 

An alcoholic drink is a typical drink that people consume as a beverage like beer and wine. Ethanol is the type of alcohol present in those drinks. The fermentation of grains, fruits, or other natural raw sources of sugar causes the ethanol to form.  

You may be wondering, “How does alcohol cause headaches?” There are several ways in which alcohol may directly or indirectly involve in causing a headache:

1. Alcohol is a direct vasodilator:

As alcohol opens and dilates blood vessels, it causes the blood to flow to increase in the brain. As a result, it may affect the brain and cause headaches to some people.

2. Alcohol is a natural diuretic:

It makes the salt, vitamins, and minerals in the body to excrete out through the kidneys. Consumption of alcohol causes you to pee more fluid than the amount you are drinking. As a result, it may lead to dehydration of the body. Dehydration reduces the body’s efficiency to excrete toxins, urea, and drugs out of the body. As a result, the circulation of these unwanted substances in the body consequently gives you a headache. Hence, if you have a history of migraines, it is best to avoid alcohol.

3. Alcohol byproducts:

Congeners are a byproduct of alcohol. They are responsible for the unique tastes and flavors of the different alcoholic beverages. They happen to play an active role in causing headaches. Dark-colored alcoholic drinks like whiskey, brandy, and wine have a higher concentration of congeners. They combine and change other chemicals in the body and bring about the hangover effect when drank in excess.

4. Through inflammation:

A chemical known as histamine is present in alcohols. When you consume too much alcohol, it stimulates the immune system to produce more histamine. This process causes inflammation all over the body.

Do wines cause more headaches than other alcoholic beverages?

Since the time of Celsius (25 B.C. – 50 A.D), records associate the effect of wine with headaches. There, he complained about having pain in the head after sipping wine. Though people commonly believe that wine triggers more headaches than other alcoholic beverages, there is little scientific evidence. 

The studies show that wine triggers headaches in less than 30% of people. They seem to have headaches regardless of the quantity of the wine they drink. However, they focused the study on red wine and neither on white nor sparkling wines. Serotonin is a hormone present in the brain that influences a person’s mood. And it also regulates headache pains.

Inferior quality wines contain phenolic flavonoid radicals, which can cause headaches as they interfere with serotonin. When the radicals affect the serotonin concentration in an individual’s brain, it may enhance pain signaling. Also, the tannins found in the grapes’ skin may trigger a headache in some people.  The high sugar content in the wine may play a role in dehydrating the body after wine consumption. 

In another study, the researchers compared people’s opinions regarding the headaches caused by beer and red wine. They found that majority of the people cited that red wine would cause more headaches than beer. The wine’s odds as a headache trigger were about three times higher than that of beer. Researchers observed how spirits and sparkling wines could affect migraines more than other alcoholic beverages in other studies.

What are the types of headaches that alcohol induces?

1. Immediate alcohol-induced headaches (IAIH):

Just after 30 minutes or an hour of drinking, you may experience mild headaches. People refer to such types of headaches as ‘cocktail headaches.’ You don’t need to drink an excessive amount of liquor to get it. Sometimes, just a glass of wine is enough to trigger the effect. The duration of such a headache is usually short-lived. You may experience a pulsating feeling on the head’s sides. And the pain may increase with an increase in physical activity.

2. Delayed alcohol-induced headache (DAIH):

For some, they may experience a headache after their blood alcohol level gets back to normal. It may even take the whole night for a headache to show up. People also refer to it as ‘hangover headache.’ People with migraines are likely to experience such a headache. Depending on the state of health, the occurrences may vary from person to person.

3. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms:

Headaches can also be a type of alcohol withdrawal symptom, much like sweating, vomiting, etc. They happen after an addicted alcohol consumer stops drinking. It is because the body and the brain get used to the daily intake of alcohol. As a result, the body gets used to having relaxed veins. So, when the person stops drinking suddenly, the configuration of the veins changes abruptly. Due to this, the veins convey pain signals to the brain and ultimately cause headaches.

How long do such headaches last?

For an immediate alcohol-induced headache, the pain usually does not last for more than 3 hours. As for delayed alcohol-induced headaches, the duration of pain does not last for more than 12 hours. 

With proper hydration, diet, and treatments, you can reduce the duration to some extent. However, if the person has migraines or has a weak immune system, the time may extend to about 72 hours. Hence, you have to take much care and precaution.

How do I treat an alcohol-induced headache?

If you drank the previous night and just woke up with a severe headache, the following suggestions might help you.
Try out painkillers and anti-inflammatories like Paracetamol and Naproxen to reduce the pain in your head.
Hydrate yourself well. As dehydration plays a significant role in causing a headache, drinking sufficient water will help recover the lost fluids. Also, it can help to mitigate the pain.
Try to drink enough fruit juices with fructose and electrolyte solutions to balance the metabolisms within your body. Fructose is a natural sugar present in fruits and fruit juices, which helps the body recover its chemical balance.
Do not keep your stomach empty; instead, consume energy replenishing foods like eggs, bananas, spinach, etc.

When should you contact a doctor?

In case the headache does not tone down, and the pain intensifies, you may have to consider contacting your doctor. It could be a case of alcohol poisoning, which needs immediate treatment. Hence, you can proceed to call your doctor if the following symptoms show:
  • You feel confused and cannot think straight.
  • The tone of your skin changes to dark blue or purple.
  • You lose appetite and start throwing up.
  • Your breathing pace slows down and needs to pause between breaths.
  • You get chills and seizures. 
  • You fall unconscious and unable to wake up even after 6-7 hours.

Tips you can follow to prevent alcohol-induced headaches?

The best tip is not to drink alcohol at all. However, people need to get away and have some good times. It is also healthy to consume alcohol in little amounts once in a while. Here are some tips you can try following to prevent or reduce headaches after drinking.

1. Limit yourself:

Does alcohol cause headaches if you drink less? Most of the time, you will not experience headaches if you limit the quantity. Do not push yourself for the sake of one moment. Take it slow, drink only to a limit, and enjoy the moment.

2. Empty stomach:

It is not wise to drink with an empty stomach. The effects of alcohol can be more direct and harmful if you drink it with an empty stomach. Having a meal also helps to reduce the chances of headaches.

3. Stress:

In case you are stressed, avoid drinking at all. It can lead to more severe headaches. There is a chance that you might drink more than you need to, which will worsen the situation even more.

4. Light-colored drinks:

The lighter the drinks, the safer it is for your headache. That is because the darker colored drinks like bourbon and whiskeys have a high concentration of congeners. These congeners make you more vulnerable to headaches after drinking.

5. Know your weakness:

Try writing a diary on the drinks you have and details of the aftermath. Analyze the beverages which trigger headaches, and if possible, note down your limit too. It will help you to avoid unsuitable drinks and help prevent headaches.

6. Honey:

Consuming honey can help you mitigate the probability of getting a headache as it contains a high amount of vitamin B6.
Too much of anything is always harmful. When it comes to alcohol, most tend to consume it in excessive amounts. Hence, headache is a very common aftereffect of drinking. The best way to prevent headaches is to control the amount of alcohol consumption. You may consider consulting a therapist if you have an addiction problem. Keeping yourself fit can help your body fight and prevent prolonged pain. We hope this article carries you through your journey to achieving a fulfilled life.

Written by

Brianna Elliott

Chief Editor

Hi I’m Brianna

A few years ago, after dealing with health issues for nearly half a decade, I realized fitness is my ultimate destiny. Hence, I enrolled in various exercise and training programs and coached in mindfulness and wellness routines. I then blended all of these habits into my daily life to get better at what I was doing and become an expert. 

Through this brand, I aim to elevate people’s spirits of wanting to live their best lives, create a system of self-awareness, and accelerate their inner growth.

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