Drinking Alcohol and HEadaches

Alcohol-induced headaches can strike at any time. Whether it is after the first few sips or the day after a binge, alcohol headaches can be uncomfortable and worrying.

Most people who drink alcohol have experienced a headache because of drinking. For the majority, this is the morning after drinking and part and parcel of a hangover. 

For some, though, headaches are more severe and can happen during or shortly after drinking alcohol.

Getting headaches from drinking doesn’t only happen to people with an addiction, but continuing to drink despite serious headaches and migraines can be a sign you are drinking too much.

alcohol headache girl in group

Why Does Alcohol Give you a Headache?

Alcohol causes headaches by dehydrating your body. Even if you drink plenty of fluids, your kidneys make urination more frequent, so you get dehydrated quickly. 

The main culprit for headaches is ethanol which is in all alcoholic drinks. This is the diuretic part that causes dehydration.

Some alcoholic drinks are worse than others for causing headaches and migraines. Red wine, rum and brandy are high in another ingredient of most alcohol-based drinks, congeners. 

These are substances that are made during the production of alcoholic beverages. Many are toxic and cause painful and groggy hangovers. They exist in different amounts. For example, red wine, rum, and brandy contain large amounts to a lesser extent, and so does beer. The lowest levels of these are found in spirits like vodka and gin.

Can Alcohol Cause Migraines?

Migraines can be painful and debilitating for those who experience them. Over a third of people prone to migraines say alcohol is the main cause. 

The reason for migraines from alcohol is three parts. Firstly, ethanol is removed from the body by the liver, and this byproduct -acetaldehyde – causes normal headaches and migraines. 

Histamine increases, causing inflammation all over your body, including your brain. 

One common trigger for migraines is dehydration, a common side effect of alcohol drinking. 

Given how severe they can be, it is well worth cutting down on drinking or stopping altogether if you find your migraines are triggered by alcohol. 

Types of Alcohol-Induced Headaches

Immediate Alcohol-Induced Headaches

If you experience headaches and migraines after a drink or two. Anywhere between immediately and 3-4 hours after drinking is this kind of headache. 

An immediate rise in histamine most likely causes this kind of headache. The inflammation increases and triggers a headache. This is a common cause of migraines as histamine and inflammation are powerful triggers. 

Delayed Alcohol-Induced Headaches

By far, the most common headache is related to hangovers. This comes on 12 or more hours after drinking but can happen sooner. 

This happens when your blood alcohol level is back to normal, usually the day after drinking. 

This kind of headache may be the best known but not as short-lived as most people think—headaches from the effect of ethanol dehydration and acetaldehyde. 

Acetaldehyde is the chemical that metabolizes alcohol and breaks it down to it can be taken out of the body. However, the liver works so hard to get rid of this chemical that it also can’t regulate your blood sugar. This can lead to migraines and headaches.

Alcohol Intolerance

This differs from alcohol allergy, a more severe reaction with stomach cramps, swelling, hives and nausea.

The most common symptoms of alcohol intolerance are blocked nose, nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, low blood pressure, flushed red skin, and itching.

Although headaches are not symptoms, other side effects can lead to them. Dehydration from nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea can cause painful headaches. 

Low blood pressure is another symptom that can cause headaches and migraines, dizziness, and lightheadedness. 

Alcohol intolerance is genetic and means the body cannot use enzymes to break down the alcohol in the body.

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Headache Alcoholism

Which Alcoholic Drinks Cause Headaches?

Cutting down on alcohol is the best way to help with drinking-related headaches, but what if you get a headache after one drink? 

You might wonder why is beer giving me headaches, but gin doesn’t? The answer lies in the reason behind the headache. Some kinds of alcohol are higher in certain ingredients. 

For those who want to cut down, not stop, there is some detective work to be done.

If wine gives you a headache, but you are otherwise not affected by other drinks, the culprit may be histamine. 

Grape skins, particularly red wine, contain higher histamine levels than other drink ingredients. You may be more likely to have this problem if you suffer from allergies such as hay fever and animal fur.

Beer also contains histamines and can trigger inflammation and, therefore, headaches. This is likely the case if wine and beer cause problems but spirits don’t. 

It probably isn’t histamine if you get this with beer and not wine. You might be intolerant to malt or wheat. It is also possible you drink faster or more with one drink than the other.

Wine is one of the worst drinks for headaches. A combination of tannins, congeners, and histamine makes it a recipe for migraines and other hangover symptoms.

Man sick in bed drinking water

What To Do About Alcohol-Induced Headaches 

How to avoid alcohol headaches depends on their severity and cause. If you get a mild headache from drinking too much all alcohol, the best answer is to cut down. Also, staying hydrated is important. Dehydration is key to reducing most alcohol headaches. 

However, if you drink one beer and your head is pounding, you might be intolerant to alcohol. This can be due to enzymes in your system or sensitivity to an ingredient. In this case, you should stop drinking any alcoholic drinks that cause this effect. 

Continuing to drink despite painful negative consequences suggests you may have a problem with your drinking.

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If you are a moderate drinker and only have symptoms when drinking one alcoholic drink, then switching to a different one could solve your problem.

Here are some other tips:

  • Drink a glass of water in between every alcoholic drink. This slows your drinking rate and keeps you hydrated.
  • Eat on a full stomach. This prevents alcohol from flooding your system and reduces nausea and vomiting.
  • If one drink causes headaches, consider switching to another.
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Treating an Alcohol-Induced Headache

There are several ways to improve an alcohol-induced headache:

  • Painkillers can help but do not take them if you have recently drunk a lot of alcohol. Also, choose NDAIDS like ibuprofen not paracetamol or codeine. The liver can’t break down paracetamol well, and taking it while detoxing from alcohol can lead to liver damage.
  • Rehydration salts can help your body to return from even serious dehydration. Without adding salts, too much water can prolong dehydration and, therefore, headaches. 
  • Rest well, and don’t ‘sweat it out’. This is a myth about sweating out the alcohol from a hangover. Too much exercise can dehydrate you further. 

Conclusions

Alcohol-induced headaches are surprisingly common but caused by a range of different triggers. 

The main reasons are:

  • Drinking too much for your body
  • Allergies & intolerance
  • Sensitivity to toxic substances in alcohol
  • Having migraines (a third of people prone to migraines cite alcohol as the main cause)

Allergies and sensitivities may be solved by switching drinks, and hydration is always important. If it is because of drinking too much, you should try cutting down or stopping drinking.

Sources

https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/headache/hangover-headache