Hangover Headache

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2020

Headaches that continue the day after consuming alcohol are called hangover headache or alcohol-induced headache. Some people get what are known as cocktail headaches, which are headaches that begin immediately after drinking.1

Alcohol can also be a migraine trigger. Roughly 3 out of 10 people with migraine say alcohol is 1 of their triggers at least some of the time. Five out of 10 people with cluster headache say alcohol is a trigger.2

How alcohol impacts the brain

Alcoholic beverages contain ethanol. Ethanol is clear and colorless with a sweet flavor and a smell that some people find pleasant. Ethanol is made by fermenting sugars. When a person drinks an alcoholic beverage, the ethanol is quickly absorbed in the stomach. The ethanol then moves into the bloodstream, into the brain’s nerve cells, and throughout the body, especially the liver.

How alcohol causes hangover headache

There is some discussion about whether it is the ethanol in alcoholic beverages that causes a hangover headache or other chemicals in the drink. Studies in the United States and Europe have found that red wine and white wine are more likely to cause a headache than vodka. Still others have found that beer or sparkling wine triggered migraines and headaches.2

Some of the chemicals in these alcoholic drinks that are thought to cause headaches in some people include:

  • Tyramine
  • Phenylethylamine
  • Histamine
  • Sulfites
  • Flavonoid phenols

Many of these chemicals are also found in foods that may trigger migraine. Examples include the histamines and tyramines found in aged cheeses and processed meats. Flavonoid phenols and tannins are found in higher levels in dark-colored drinks such as whiskey and brandy compared to light-colored drinks like vodka or gin. Some studies suggest that dark-colored drinks are more likely to trigger migraine or cause worse hangover headaches than light-colored drinks. These findings lead some doctors to believe that these other chemicals, and not alcohol, are what trigger migraine and headache.2

Diagnosing hangover headache

The International Headache Society lists 2 types of alcohol-induced headache: immediate and delayed.

Immediate alcohol-induced headache

As the name suggests, an immediate alcohol-induced headache happens when someone gets a headache within 30 minutes to 3 hours after drinking alcohol. Other symptoms include:1,2

  • Throbbing or pulsing head pain on both sides of the head
  • Most of the pain is felt at the forehead
  • Physical activity makes the pain worse
  • Headache goes away in 3 days

Delayed alcohol-induced headache

Immediate hangover headaches are more rare than delayed alcohol-induced headaches. A delayed alcohol-induced headache begins after someone’s alcohol level in the blood begins to drop. The symptoms for delayed hangover headache include:1

  • Throbbing or pulsing head pain on both sides of the head
  • Most of the pain is felt at the forehead
  • Physical activity makes the pain worse
  • Headache goes away in 3 days

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol may trigger a migraine or headache in people with migraine. People who do not get migraines tend to get a headache when consuming a large amount of alcohol.

Treating a hangover headache

If you are miserable the morning after having a drink, there are some options to help you clear your hangover headache. The most common recommendations are:3

  • Drink plenty of water to rehydrate
  • Eat some carbohydrate-rich food to bring your blood sugar level back up
  • Take an NSAID pain reliever like aspirin or ibuprofen, not acetaminophen

Drinking alcohol also gets in the way of a good night’s sleep, so a nap may also help relieve a hangover headache. Drinks with caffeine like coffee, tea, or soda, help some people with a hangover headache but may increase dehydration too.3

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