It is estimated that 85.6% of people drink alcohol at some point in their lifetime. Everyone enjoys having a drink now and then, and there’s nothing wrong with a nice beer or glass of wine if drank in moderation.
Unfortunately, there are times when you have a lot to drink and wake up the next day with a sore head. Why does this always happen? Why do you get a headache after drinking alcohol? It’s very common and nothing too alarming – all is explained down below:
Can alcohol cause headaches?
Yes, alcohol is the direct cause of headaches in a lot of instances. If you start suffering from a headache during or after drinking alcohol, the chances are it was caused by the alcohol in your system.
There are a couple of reasons why alcohol and headaches are so closely linked. To start, alcohol is a diuretic, which means it makes you go to the toilet more frequently. As a result, you are losing more fluids than you’re taking on, leading to dehydration.
It has long been known that dehydration can cause headaches, but it is also responsible for exacerbating existing medical conditions. If you regularly suffer from headaches, being dehydrated is likely to make you have one.
Furthermore, some of the substances in alcohol have been linked to triggering headaches. Most notably, histamine has been associated with vascular headaches for hundreds of years and is present in alcoholic beverages.
Can alcohol trigger a migraine?
Again, it is reported that alcohol is a major trigger for migraines in lots of people. In fact, around one-third of migraine sufferers have indicated that alcohol has triggered migraines in the past.
However, there isn’t currently enough research to conclusively say why this is the case. Many believe that it is for similar reasons why alcohol causes headaches. In particular, the dehydration aspect is seen as a big migraine trigger. As mentioned above, if you already suffer from things like chronic headaches or migraines, being dehydrated will likely make this worse and cause a migraine episode.
Different types of headaches from alcohol
Generally speaking, two different types of headaches have been reported when drinking alcohol:
- Immediate alcohol-induced headaches
- Delayed alcohol-induced headaches
The second category is perhaps the one you are most familiar with. This is the headache that usually comes as part of a hangover, the morning after you have been drinking.
By contrast, the first type of headache is seen while you are drinking alcohol. It usually starts within three hours of drinking and can get worse the more alcohol you drink.
Both of these headache types can be either cluster or tension headaches depending on the individual. If you are pre-disposed to either of these, it is likely that you’ll experience them when drinking.
How much alcohol does it take to cause a headache?
Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific figure we can give to tell you how much alcohol must be consumed to cause a headache. It varies depending on the individual and what you are drinking.
For some people, one glass of red wine may be enough to trigger a headache. For others, multiple glasses of wine or bottles of beer could leave them without any pain at all. There is currently no research or evidence to tell us how much alcohol you need to drink to get a headache.
How to treat an alcohol-induced headache?
To begin, if you are suffering from an immediate alcohol-induced headache, you should stop drinking right away. Switch to water so you can rehydrate yourself and avoid the negative effects of dehydration.
Taking general pain medication is also a good idea to help ease the pain while keeping yourself in a dark room will also help.
Some medical professionals will also suggest taking something like Pedialyte to help with a delayed alcohol-induced headache. Pedialyte is primarily used when you suffer from diarrhea as it rehydrates you by providing essential minerals that are commonly lost when you lose fluids. Consequently, this can be a great treatment for hangovers by helping you rehydrate your system a lot faster than drinking water alone.
You could also drink sports drinks that contain electrolytes, though be careful as they can also contain a lot of added sugar.
How do you get rid of alcohol migraines?
Treatment for alcohol migraines remains largely the same as the treatment for alcohol headaches. However, it is a smart idea to reduce your alcohol consumption if you regularly suffer from migraines to avoid triggering one.
More powerful painkillers could also be used if the pain is extremely intense. Of course, you should consult a medical professional to get the right prescription for your migraine.
How do you prevent a headache when drinking?
Preventing a headache when drinking can be easier than you think. Naturally, the first port of call is to keep yourself hydrated. You are going to lose lots of fluids if you drink a lot of alcohol, so try to cut down on the quantity. Perhaps slip in a glass of water for every glass of alcohol you drink, preventing dehydration.
Slowing down your rate of drinking will definitely help as well. If you sip slower, you will not drink as much and will avoid going to the toilet too frequently, leading to dehydration. Your choice of alcoholic beverage may also play a role in preventing headaches when drinking.
What alcohol doesn’t give you headaches?
Certain alcoholic beverages are worse for triggering headaches than others. One study from 2018 concluded that red wine is the biggest cause of headaches – with 77.8% of participants saying it was a trigger. Beer and other dark beverages are also believed to be bad if you suffer from headaches, while clearer drinks are better. Vodka and other spirits may reduce your chances of developing headaches when you drink because they contain fewer substances than darker alcoholic beverages.
When to see a doctor?
Headaches during and after drinking are common and you shouldn’t be too worried about them. However, if you consistently suffer from headaches or migraines and are struggling to find relief, you should see a doctor to get yourself checked out.
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Alcohol is a trigger for both headaches and migraines when large quantities are consumed. It is largely caused by dehydration as alcohol is a diuretic, but other compounds in alcohol can cause headaches. Thankfully, you can easily prevent these issues by managing your alcohol consumption and staying hydrated!
- Alcohol Facts and Statistics (2022). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Available from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
- Arca KN, Halker Singh RB. Dehydration and Headache. Curr Pain Headache Rep. 2021 Jul 15;25(8):56. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11916-021-00966-z .
- Worm, J., Falkenberg, K. & Olesen, J. Histamine and migraine revisited: mechanisms and possible drug targets. J Headache Pain 20, 30 (2019). Available from: https://doi.org/10.1186/s10194-019-0984-1
- Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society (IHS) The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism. Volume: 38 issue: 1, page(s): 1-211, January 1, 2018. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0333102417738202
- G. L. J. Onderwatera , W. P. J. van Oosterhouta,G. G. Schoonmana,c, M. D. Ferraria, and G. M. Terwindta (2018) Alcoholic beverages as trigger factor and the effect on alcohol consumption behavior in patients with migraine. European Journal of Neurology. 26: 588-595. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1111/ene.13861
DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.