Suffering a hangover headache? Found yourself with a throbbing head after just one drink? In this article, we’ll take a look at why getting a headache when drinking alcohol is so common. It’s a well-established trigger for headaches including migraines, cluster headaches, and tension headaches.
We’ll look at some of the worst alcoholic drinks you can drink when it comes to headaches and why wine is a particularly bad culprit. We’ll also explore why consuming alcohol so often leads to either an immediate alcohol-induced headache (commonly called a cocktail headache) or a delayed alcohol-induced headache (you might know this better as a hangover headache), as well as looking at why it doesn’t always take too much alcohol to result in a headache.
The article will wrap up with some advice on how to avoid getting a migraine or headache when drinking alcohol, before looking at some of the signs it could be time to consider alcohol addiction treatment.
Types of Alcohol That Trigger Headaches
Alcohol-induced headaches are a misery – is there a way to avoid them by being selective about which alcohol drinks you consume?
What Alcohol Causes the Most Headaches?
It’s well established that drinking alcohol can lead to an alcohol-induced headache. But are specific alcohol drinks to blame, or are they all as likely to give you a hangover headache as each other?
While consuming alcohol of any type could lead to a hangover headache, there are certain factors that can impact this. Personal differences mean that certain alcoholic drinks are more likely to result in a hangover headache than others. For example, some people might find that beer always triggers headaches, whereas another person might find spirits worse for hangover headaches.
That said, broadly speaking, clear spirits like vodka are considered the least likely to cause a hangover and thus result in an alcohol-induced headache compared with darker drinks. As for the worse choice? Red wine tips the list for alcohol-related headaches.
Why is alcohol consumption, and specifically drinking wine, so likely to result in an alcohol-induced headache? It’s believed that the histamine content is higher in wine and this essentially causes an allergic reaction in the body which can trigger headaches.
It’s also believed that drinks which have aged over a period of time may be more likely to result in delayed alcohol-induced headaches. Wine is especially high in tannins, which in some people, can trigger headaches.
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What Kind of Wine Doesn’t Give You a Headache?
White wine is produced without grape skin. This is an important note because grape skins contain histamine, so white wine is naturally much lower in histamine. You might also opt for a sulfite-free wine, as sulfites (compounds help preserve the wine) are linked to headaches.
It’s worth noting that although wine is commonly associated with alcohol-related headaches, all alcoholic drinks (and especially consuming too much alcohol in general) can trigger headaches.
How Do Alcohol-Induced Headaches Occur?
The primary reason behind alcohol-induced headaches is dehydration. When you drink alcohol, you’re consuming a diuretic; this impacts your kidneys, which alters the fluid levels in your body. That’s why drinking alcohol often causes people to use the bathroom frequently. This lost fluid is not replaced, which results in dehydration, a well-known headache trigger. As well as causing the body to lose fluid, your body will also lose vital salt and the minerals it needs to help it function properly. So while drinking water in between drinks and before bed is a good idea, it won’t actually replenish your depleted mineral stores.
As well as headaches, drinking alcohol can trigger migraine headaches. This is believed to happen due to alcohol widening the blood vessels, which allows more blood to flow into the brain.
It’s such a common phenomenon that research has found one-third of migraine sufferers cite alcohol as a trigger for their migraine headaches. There is also a genetic component involved with who does and doesn’t get migraine headaches after drinking, according to research.
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Onset of Alcohol-Induced Headaches
There are two types of alcohol-induced headaches: delayed alcohol-induced headaches and immediate alcohol-induced headaches. In this section, we’ll take a look at how they differ.
Immediate Alcohol-Induced Headache
As the name suggests, an immediate alcohol-induced headache makes itself known shortly after you begin consuming alcohol. You might have heard it referred to as a cocktail headache. It’s less common and is often felt as a pulsing sensation on the sides of the head. Many people will find it worsens with further alcohol consumption as well as intense movement. It typically starts shortly after drinking alcohol, but it could take several hours to trigger a headache.
Delayed Alcohol-Induced Headache
Far more common is the delayed alcohol-induced headache, which most people will experience around 12 hours after they stop drinking alcohol. These so-called hangover headaches differ from an immediate alcohol-induced headache, as they typically present as a more dull, throbbing sensation.
Headaches Can Occur After Small Amounts of Alcohol
Most people assume that headaches are linked with drinking too much alcohol, but an immediate alcohol-induced headache can kick in minutes after drinking one drink. Likewise, you can suffer a delayed alcohol-induced headache the following morning even if your alcohol consumption levels were fairly low the night before.
What is often confusing to people is that the prevalence of headaches, as well as the severity of the hangover in general, differs and doesn’t seem dependent on how much alcohol you’ve drunk. In other words, on one occasion you might find yourself feeling surprisingly fresh after a night of heavy alcohol consumption, whereas another time you’re left with a sore head after a couple of glasses. What’s that all about?
Along with how much alcohol you drink, there are various contributing factors to this phenomenon including if you’ve eaten a meal before consuming alcohol, how well-hydrated you are, the quality of the alcoholic drinks you’re drinking, and your current state of health.
How to Avoid Getting a Headache When Drinking Alcohol
It goes without saying that the only way to guarantee you avoid a hangover headache is to avoid drinking alcohol entirely. This isn’t always possible though and if you are currently struggling with alcohol dependency or addiction, stopping cold turkey could be dangerous.
However, when it comes to avoiding a hangover, it’s worth pointing out that research has found that there was no meaningful scientific evidence that any substance has any effectiveness for treating or preventing a hangover. With that in mind, here are a few steps you can take that may help limit the risk of headaches while you are consuming alcohol.
Only drink alcohol after you have eaten: You do not want to drink alcohol on an empty stomach. The food will help slow down your body’s ability to absorb the alcohol, which will lower your risk of an immediate alcohol-induced headache and a delayed alcohol-induced headache.
Stick to clear alcohol drinks: If possible, opt for clear spirits and forget the wine and beer. It’s very important to add plenty of mixers, in order to slow down the absorption of the alcohol. Darker alcohol, like red wine, tequila, and whisky, contain chemicals called congeners that add to ethanol’s negative effects.
Drink slowly: Drinking too much alcohol over a short period of time can overwhelm your body’s ability to process it, which will lead to you feeling inebriated and suffering from alcohol-related headaches.
Note down headache triggers: Knowledge is power. Make a note of any links between alcohol consumption and alcohol-induced headaches. You can also write down factors that may have also been at play, such as food consumption, sleep, state of health, mood, etc.
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How Do You Get Rid of Delayed Alcohol-Induced Headaches?
If you have woken up with a hangover headache, there are some steps you can take to make yourself feel better:
- Eat: Eat a nutritious, balanced meal and opt for foods that are packed with minerals like bananas or broth. You’ll also want a decent serving of carbohydrates, such as potato or bread, to boost your blood sugar levels.
- Drink: If you can’t face food yet, drink an electrolyte drink (sports drinks are a good, easily found option). These are packed with minerals like sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium which will boost your blood glucose and sodium level, which can help rehydrate you quicker. Drink plenty of water too, replacing lost fluids is vital.
- Painkillers: Take a painkiller such as paracetamol to ease the pain of your hangover headache.
- Avoid drinking more – ‘Hair of the dog’ will not make you feel better, avoid all alcohol while you are recovering.
How Do You Fix an Immediate Alcohol-Induced Headache?
If you have been drinking alcohol and experience an immediate alcohol-induced headache, the most important thing you can do is stop consuming alcohol. Ideally, go home, drink plenty of fluids and rest in a dark, quiet room. If you have to stay at an event, at the very least switch your alcoholic drinks for a soft drink. Be very careful about taking pain medication at this point, as you will still have alcohol in your system which could interact with it.
How Do You Stop Alcohol Migraines?
Alcohol can trigger headaches including tension and cluster headaches, as well as migraine headaches. If you’re a migraine sufferer, you’ll likely be well versed in noting down any and all headache triggers.
Many migraine sufferers find keeping a simple diary helps them to understand their triggers and migraine headaches much better. If you’re new to this concept, you might like to record things such as what food you’ve eaten, drinks including caffeine and alcohol drinks you’ve consumed, sleep, stress levels, where you are in your menstrual cycle, etc. If you notice that alcohol results in migraine headaches, you may decide it’s best to stop consuming alcohol altogether.
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Alcohol Rehab and Treatment
If you are regularly experiencing a headache when drinking alcohol, but are unable to stop drinking alcohol, you might benefit from some extra support.
Consuming too much alcohol or drinking alcohol to the point of giving yourself hangover headaches frequently, could be a sign that your alcohol consumption has gotten out of hand. If you try to stop drinking alcohol but find yourself giving in or experiencing withdrawal symptoms, now could be the time to reach out for some help before it gets worse.
At Castle Craig, our evidence-based treatment program for alcohol addiction has helped over 10,000 people to overcome their addiction issues and feel control over their lives again.
Whether you’re interested in residential rehab with a medically supervised detox, an outpatient treatment program, or even an online alternative, we’d be happy to talk through the options with you.
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Panconesi A. Alcohol-induced headaches: Evidence for a central mechanism? J Neurosci Rural Pract. 2016 Apr-Jun;7(2):269-75. doi: 10.4103/0976-3147.178654. PMID: 27114660; PMCID: PMC4821937.
García-Martín E, Martínez C, Serrador M, et al. Alcohol dehydrogenase 2 genotype and risk for migraine. Headache. 2010;50(1):85-91. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4610.2009.01396.x