An Overview of Cocktail Headaches

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Sipping a fizzing glass of champagne or a soothing glass of red wine during the holidays can be a pleasurable experience. But sometimes, alcohol ingestion can induce a headache, within as little as three hours after consumption.

While you may be familiar with that dreaded, uncomfortable hangover headache after an evening of drinking one or more alcoholic beverages, a cocktail headache occurs that same evening and does not typically correlate with the quantity of alcohol consumption.

Let's take a closer look at what exactly is a cocktail headache, more formally known as an immediate alcohol-induced headache.

What's a Cocktail Headache Like?
Verywell / Emily Roberts

Cocktail Headache Symptoms

According to the International Headache Society, a cocktail headache occurs within three hours after a person consumes an alcoholic beverage and resolves within 72 hours. It also includes at least one of the following three features:

  • The headache occurs on both sides of the head.
  • The headache is throbbing or pulsating (imagine your brain as a drum).
  • The headache is aggravated by physical activity.

It's interesting to note that cocktail headaches are much rarer than hangover headaches, and they can be triggered by variable amounts of alcohol. For instance, for some people with migraines, just a small amount of alcohol can lead to a cocktail headache, whereas others can tolerate alcohol at the same level as people who don't get migraines.


Besides a cocktail or hangover headache, alcohol has also been reported as a trigger in primary headache disorders, most notably migraine and cluster headaches, followed by tension headaches (although the evidence is not as robust).

The mechanism through which alcohol can trigger these distinct headache disorders is not well understood. While the acute widening of blood vessels in the brain (called vasodilation) may explain the cocktail headache, this is likely not the mechanism for hangover headaches (when alcohol levels in the blood have declined to zero).

For a hangover headache, also called a delayed alcohol-induced headache, experts believe that nerve chemicals involved in central pain control, like serotonin, are likely responsible.

The type of alcohol does not seem to affect whether a person gets a headache. While red wine has been described as a dominant trigger of migraines and cluster headaches, white wine, champagne, sparkling wines, and beer have also been linked to headaches.


If alcohol is a headache trigger for you, think before you drink. In other words, the best treatment for a cocktail headache is actually preventing one in the first place. Before consuming a cocktail, ask yourself if it is worth developing a headache over and ruining your celebration or holiday.

If alcohol only occasionally causes you a headache, then moderation or striking that balance (as opposed to abstinence), may be a more reasonable approach. If you do develop an occasional cocktail headache, soothe your discomfort with rest, a tall glass of water, and an over-the-counter painkiller.

Be sure to talk with your healthcare provider about your "cocktail headache" plan. For example, if you experience migraines and notice that alcohol triggers your migraine headache then taking one of your migraine therapies (for example, a triptan) at the start of your headache may be best.

Headaches Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next healthcare provider's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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A Word From Verywell

If you and/or others are concerned about your alcohol intake, please seek the guidance of your healthcare provider, as alcohol intake can have serious health and social consequences. If you would like more information on alcohol use disorder, talk with your healthcare provider or contact the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long will a cocktail headache last?

    Up to 72 hours from when it starts. Note that to qualify as a cocktail (or delayed alcohol-induced) headache, the pain must start within three hours of drinking. A headache that sets in the next day is a symptom of a hangover.

  • What can I take to relieve a cocktail headache?

    You can take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Advil or Motrin (both are brands of ibuprofen) or Aleve (naproxen), although when combined with alcohol these can put you at risk of stomach bleeding. Do not take Tylenol (acetaminophen), as doing so will overtax your liver.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition (beta version). Cephalalgia. 2013;33(9):629-808. doi:10.1177/0333102413485658

  2. Panconesi A, Bartolozzi ML, Mugnai S, Guidi L. Alcohol as a dietary trigger of primary headaches: what triggering site could be compatible?. Neurol Sci. 2012;33 Suppl 1:S203-5. doi:10.1007/s10072-012-1068-z

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Hangover headache.

Additional Reading

By Colleen Doherty, MD
 Colleen Doherty, MD, is a board-certified internist living with multiple sclerosis.