Alcohol: A Trigger for Headaches and Migraines

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Alcohol can trigger headaches, including migraines, cluster headaches, and tension-type headaches. In fact, around 30 percent of people who experience recurrent migraines report alcohol as a trigger. About half of those with less common headache disorders, such as cluster headaches, paroxysmal hemicrania, hemicrania continua, and familial hemiplegic migraine, also notice that alcohol precipitates their headaches.

If you have chronic headaches, identifying and avoiding your triggers can substantially improve your quality of life. To determine if drinking is one of yours, it's helpful to learn the signs of alcohol-induced headaches.

Types of Alcohol-Related Headaches

There are two well-recognized types of alcohol-related headaches. According to criteria from the International Classification of Headache Disorders:

Alcohol-induced headaches tend to be bilateral (affect both sides of the head). A cocktail headache tends to have a pulsating or throbbing quality, while a hangover headache is typically associated with fatigue and a general feeling of being unwell.

Often, alcohol-induced headaches also have characteristics that resemble your usual headaches, whether they are migraines, cluster headaches, or tension headaches.

How Alcohol Triggers Headaches

There have been several proposed explanations for how alcohol causes headaches.

Red wine is the type of alcohol most often reported as a headache trigger. Tannin, a component in red wine, has been long considered the culprit.

In addition to red wine, other alcoholic beverages, including beer, white wine, and liqueur, have also been reported as headache triggers.

Substances such as sulfites, histamine, and tyramines are found in alcohol and may contribute to headaches as well. It has also been proposed that alcohol triggers an inflammatory response that can lead to a headache.

Vasodilation (widening of blood vessels), which is associated with migraines, but not with other headaches, was previously thought to be the cause of alcohol-induced headaches. Since other headaches besides migraines can occur in response to alcohol consumption, experts suggest that vasodilation may not be the initial trigger of alcohol-induced headaches. Instead, another mechanism in the brain itself could be at play.

Genetic Predisposition

It has been suggested that a tendency to experience alcohol-induced headaches could be genetic. And researchers suggest that experiencing an unpleasant effect from drinking alcohol may alter alcohol consumption.

In fact, many headache sufferers abstain from alcohol or consume less than the general population. Studies also show that alcohol abuse disorders are less common among people who experience headaches, indicating that a predisposition to alcohol-induced headaches may offer individuals some degree of protection from alcohol overuse.

It's important to note that alcohol use disorder is a serious illness that can have life threatening consequences. Please see your doctor if you are concerned about your alcohol use.

When an Alcohol-Induced Headache Strikes

If you experience a cocktail headache or a hangover, the best strategies are:

  • Taking an over-the-counter pain medication
  • Making sure you stay hydrated; opt for water and/or beverages with electrolytes, such as sports drinks
  • Eating something bland, if you are hungry
  • Getting some rest

Generally, these episodes resolve within a few hours, but can last up to a whole day.

If you have persistent lightheadedness or vomiting, seek medical attention.

A Word From Verywell

If drinking alcohol appears to be a potent headache trigger for you, then, by all means, abstain from it. But if a cocktail with friends once in a while or a glass of wine with your dinner on Saturday night does not seem to trigger a bad headache, then it's probably OK. Moderation appears to be the key.

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