What is a Caffeine Withdrawal Headache?

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Many people routinely drink a morning cup of coffee or tea. Missing that morning cup of coffee, however, can lead to headache and other symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

This article discusses the symptoms and causes of caffeine withdrawal. It also discusses some ways you can treat your caffeine withdrawal symptoms.

Close up of cappuccino machine
Guido Mieth / Getty Images

Symptoms

You might get a caffeine withdrawal headache if you regularly drink two or more 6-ounce cups of coffee per day and then skip or delay a cup. A headache can happen even after a delay of just a few hours.

This type of headache is usually moderately to severely painful. It tends to be located on both sides of the head and may worsen with physical activity. The pain will usually peak after one or two days without caffeine. It can last for between two and nine days.

The amount of caffeine you consume doesn't necessarily affect whether or not you'll get a withdrawal headache. Other factors may play a role, such as how your body metabolizes caffeine.

Some people get caffeine withdrawal headaches even though they only consume small amounts of caffeine. Others who regularly drink more caffeine may not get caffeine headaches at all, even if they drink less than usual.

Caffeine headaches typically start within 12 to 24 hours of stopping caffeine. They may be accompanied by other symptoms, such as:

  • Drowsiness
  • Poor concentration
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Muscle aches and stiffness

The amount of caffeine you usually consume might influence when you will start to feel withdrawal symptoms. It may also have an impact on how long your symptoms will last. Research, however, suggests most people start to feel better after about a week.

Causes

Caffeine is the most-used drug in the world. In the U.S., approximately 90% of adults report drinking caffeinated beverages every day.

Although caffeine is considered a drug, experts don't agree on whether it qualifies as an addictive substance.

Research has demonstrated that regular use of caffeine can lead to:

  • Dependence
  • Increased tolerance
  • Withdrawal symptoms

Still, research suggests it doesn't fit the commonly accepted definition of an addictive substance. A 2010 study, for example, found that caffeine doesn't activate the dependence and reward system in the brain. 

However, caffeine use disorder is recognized by the medical and psychiatric community. In 2013, caffeine use disorder was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition under the broader category of substance use disorders.

If you regularly drink coffee, tea, or soda and you stop or substantially reduce your intake, you may experience symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, including headache.

Research indicates that about half of people who consume more than 200 mg of caffeine a day will develop withdrawal headaches if they abruptly stop.

It's not clear why the other half do not have symptoms if they reduce their caffeine intake, but it may have to do with individual caffeine sensitivity.

Likewise, a person who is more sensitive to caffeine might experience withdrawal symptoms even if they only regularly consume 100 mg a day.

Timing and other lifestyle factors can also drive caffeine withdrawal symptoms. For example, someone who only drinks coffee during the workweek may tend to get headaches over the weekend due to pausing their caffeine intake.

If a person needs to fast (such as before a medical test or procedure) they might get a fasting headache, which is sometimes attributed to caffeine withdrawal.

Sources

While coffee is one of the most popular, there are other sources of caffeine (both natural and manufactured).

Common dietary and supplemental sources of caffeine include:

  • Tea (including black, green, chai, matcha, and oolong)
  • Soda
  • Energy drinks or "shots"
  • Coffee-flavored ice cream or yogurt
  • Chocolate (especially dark and bittersweet)
  • Other-the-counter/prescription medications and nutritional supplements

Researchers have theorized that over-the-counter and prescription drugs that contain caffeine, such as Excedrin and the headache medications Fioricet and Fiorinal, can lead to "rebound headaches" or "medication overuse headaches."

While research has not definitively concluded that caffeine is to blame, withdrawal might play a role in triggering a headache when someone who regularly takes the medication suddenly stops.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), taking larger doses of these medications may contribute, but the headaches can also occur in people taking smaller doses every day.

The common ingredients in most OTC headache medications, such as aspirin and other painkillers, may also contribute to the "rebound effect."

How Much Caffeine Is In...
Starbucks Tall Latte  12 oz  75 mg
Starbucks Grande Latte 16 oz 150 mg
Starbucks Coffee Short 8 oz 130 mg to 190 mg
McCafe Coffee 12 oz 110 mg
Black Tea 8 oz 40 mg
Green Tea 8 oz 25 mg
Mountain Dew 12 oz 54 mg
Cola 12 oz up to 71 mg
Red Bull 8 oz 80 mg
Hershey's Chocolate Bar 1.55 oz 9 mg
Starbucks Hot Chocolate, grande 16 oz 25 mg
Excedrine Migraine 2 pills 130 mg

Treatment

The simplest "treatment" for caffeine withdrawal headache is to have a caffeinated beverage: most people will get relief within an hour of consuming around 100 mg of caffeine. In a 2017 study of people with migraines, adding a dose of acetaminophen to the caffeine provided even more rapid relief.

While the caffeine content of coffee varies widely based on the blend and how it's brewed, an 8-ounce cup of regular brewed coffee typically has between 80-150 mg of caffeine, though some brews have closer to 250 mg.

As with coffee, the caffeine content of tea depends on several factors, including the blend, the temperature of the water it's brewed in, and how long it steeps. According to survey data from the USDA, the average 8-ounce cup of hot, brewed, black leaf tea has about 50 mg of caffeine.

If your goal is to cut back or eliminate caffeine from your diet, there are other steps you can take to avoid the headache of caffeine withdrawal.

Don't Stop Abruptly

Research has found that the most effective way to prevent withdrawal symptoms is to slowly and gradually reduce your caffeine intake.

The amount you eliminate each day and how long it takes you to completely cut caffeine out of your diet will vary, but most recommendations advise gradually reducing over a period of two to six weeks to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

OTC Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen can help ease symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

Excedrin, a combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine, can be effective for headaches experienced during caffeine withdrawal. However, as noted above, this type of medication may also contribute to rebound headaches—especially if used for a long period of time.

Drink Water

Staying hydrated can help prevent caffeine withdrawal headaches, especially for people who get migraines (which can be triggered by dehydration).

A Word From Verywell

For headaches, caffeine can be the ultimate paradox: while it has been shown to help treat migraines and tension-type headaches, regular caffeine intake has also been linked to chronic migraines and medication overuse headaches.

Even if you're not prone to headaches, decreasing or stopping your daily coffee or tea habit could cause withdrawal headaches. If the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal become difficult to manage, you might want to consider cutting caffeine out of your diet—or at least have it in moderation.

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15 Sources
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