What is a Caffeine Withdrawal Headache?

An espresso shot being made
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Many of us wake up every morning craving that steaming cup of joe or hot tea to invigorate our bodies and prepare us for a long day ahead. But sometimes we miss that cup (or two!) of caffeine with dreaded results—a caffeine withdrawal headache and other unpleasant symptoms.

Symptoms

People who consume two or more 6-ounce cups of coffee per day and then interrupt or delay (even by a few hours) their caffeine consumption may develop a caffeine withdrawal headache.

A caffeine withdrawal headache is typically moderately to severely painful, located on both sides of the head, and tends to worsen with any physical activity.

It is not necessarily dose-related, meaning people may develop it even when they consume lower amounts of caffeine on a regular basis. Similarly, some individuals do not develop a withdrawal headache after delaying caffeine intake, despite regular high caffeine consumption— it all just depends on the individual (potentially a person's genes are at work here). 

The good news is that a caffeine withdrawal headache is usually relieved within an hour by consuming a cup of coffee, or the equivalent of roughly 100mg of caffeine.

Caffeine withdrawal symptoms typically begin within 12 to 24 hours of stopping caffeine and can include:

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

People with a moderate to severe addiction to caffeine may experience symptoms for several days after quitting. Withdrawal headaches usually peak in severity after one to two days without caffeine and typically lasts two to nine days. Some people, however, can experience withdrawal symptoms for up to three weeks.

Causes

Caffeine is an addictive chemical compound and regular use leads to dependence, increased tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms with a decline in consumption. In regular coffee, tea, or cola drinkers, stopping or substantially reducing normal daily caffeine consumption leads to withdrawal symptoms, including headache.

Caffeine use disorder falls under the broader topic of substance use disorder and was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition in 2013.

Research shows about 50 percent of people who regularly consume more than 200 mg of caffeine a day develop caffeine withdrawal headaches when stopping abruptly and some people who are sensitive to caffeine may experience symptoms after regular consumption of 100 mg a day.

Even so much as a 30 mg to 100 mg reduction in caffeine intake or an hour delay in your morning cup of coffee can trigger a withdrawal headache. People who only drink coffee on weekdays may experience weekend headaches due to withdrawal. In addition, fasting headaches are also often due to caffeine withdrawal.

Sources

There are multiple sources of caffeine besides coffee, like certain teas and sodas, coffee ice cream and yogurt, chocolate bars and candies, especially dark and bittersweet.

Although it's theoretical — meaning not scientifically proven — it's believed that headache medications that contain caffeine can also lead to caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Examples of medications that contain caffeine include Excedrin and the headache prescription medications Fioricet and Fiorinal.

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 simple solution for a caffeine withdrawal headache is to have some caffeine. However, if your goal is to eliminate caffeine from your diet, this may not be the best solution.

Don't Stop Abruptly

Experts recommend slowly weaning down on caffeine over a period of two weeks to avoid withdrawal headaches. Gradually reducing caffeine intake by 25 percent every two days can help to ease withdrawal and prevent headaches.

OTC Pain Relievers

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen can also help ease the symptoms of withdrawal. Excedrin, which is a combination of acetaminophen, aspirin, and caffeine, is particularly effective for this type of headache.

Drink Water

You can ease headaches from caffeine withdrawal by drinking more water. According to research published in the European Journal of Neurology, drinking an additional 1 liter to 1.5 liters of water a day can reduce headache events, duration, and intensity.

A Word From Verywell

In the headache world, caffeine is the ultimate paradox. On one end, caffeine can help treat migraines and tension-type headaches. On the other end, daily caffeine intake has been linked to both chronic migraines and medication overuse headaches. Finally, you are at risk of developing a withdrawal headache if you miss or decrease your usual amount of caffeine.

Think carefully about what the right solution is for you: caffeine elimination or just moderation.

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