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Hangover Headache

Headaches that continue the day after consuming alcohol are called hangover headaches or alcohol-induced headaches.

Alcohol can also be a migraine trigger. About a third of people with migraine list alcohol as a trigger.

How alcohol impacts the brain

Alcoholic beverages contain ethanol. Ethanol is clear, 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 is distributed into the bloodstream and then into the brain’s nerve cells. The ethanol is distributed throughout the body, as it circulates 90 percent of the ethanol is processed by the liver.

Ethanol is a drug that acts on the brain, liver, kidneys, heart, stomach, blood vessels, hormones and other bodily systems. Ethanol also serves as a depressant and suppresses certain brain functions.

Initially the ethanol in alcohol makes most people feel relaxed and happy. More alcohol causes more enthusiastic behavior, which is typically followed by blurred vision and reduced inhibitions.

How alcohol causes hangover headaches

Chemicals in alcohol, such as tyramine and histamine are believed to interact with brain chemicals. These events can lead to headache and in some people trigger migraine. The headache usually occurs the next morning after drinking alcohol, when the alcohol level in the body falls. People with migraine are more likely than the average person to experience hangover headache.

One 2004 study of 1,122 people found that men are more likely to experience alcohol headache than women.

Symptoms of alcohol intoxication

  • Slurred speech
  • Difficulty walking steadily
  • Slowed reaction
  • Confusion
  • Blurred vision
  • Disturbed sensory perceptions
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Vomiting
  • Memory black outs
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Hiccups
  • Unreliable perceptions

Dangerous symptoms of excessive alcohol consumption

  • Coma
  • Slowed breathing
  • In some cases, death

Diagnosing hangover headaches

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

Immediate alcohol-induced headache have the following characteristics:

  1. Headache with at least one of the following features and that meets the criteria in B and D
    1. Head pain on both sides of the head
    2. Most of the pain is located in the front of the forehead
    3. Throbbing or pulsating pain
    4. The pain is made worse by physical activity
  2. Consuming an alcoholic beverage
  3. Headache develops within three hours of drinking an alcoholic beverage
  4. Headache goes away within three days

Delayed alcohol-induced headache have the following characteristics:

  1. Headache with at least one of the following features and meets the characteristics described in C and D
    1. Head pain on both sides of the head
    2. Pain is mainly in the front of the forehead
    3. Head pain is pulsating or throbbing
    4. The pain and discomfort worsens with physical activity
  2. Drinking a modest amount of alcohol by a migraine sufferer or an intoxicating amount by someone who doesn’t suffer from migrains
  3. Headache surfaces after the alcohol level in the blood begins to decline or is reduced to zero
  4. Headache gets better within three days


Written by: Otesa Miles | Last review date: November 2010