Factors such as sensitivity to specific ingredients in alcohol, body weight, or genetic factors may cause headaches in some people after consuming alcohol.

Some individuals experience headaches or migraine after consuming alcohol. In some cases, alcohol can cause these effects, but certain additives may also be at play.

This article will explore the relationship between alcohol and headache and consider why some people develop an alcohol headache after one drink.

We also examine the types of headache alcohol can trigger and the types of alcohol likely to cause more headaches. Finally, we look at ways to avoid headaches after drinking.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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A 2016 study showed that alcohol consistently induced migraine in 10% of people.

Meanwhile, 2020 research showed that 95% of participants experienced alcohol-induced headaches.

While there is some research on each possible reason why alcohol causes headaches, study authors have not definitively proven the link between the two.

Sensitivity to specific ingredients in alcohol

Alcoholic beverages include a chemical known as ethanol. This chemical is a vasodilator, which increases the size of blood vessels in the body.

Vasodilation may trigger migraine attacks in certain individuals. This is especially true for people prone to headaches or migraine without alcohol.

Chemicals called congeners are also a component of alcoholic drinks. These chemicals may also trigger migraine headaches in certain people.

Another compound known as histamine is common in alcohol, particularly red wine. Scientists have established that this compound cancause vascular headaches.

Ethnicity and genetic predisposition

Individuals from different ethnic backgrounds may have variable sensitivity to alcohol.

In a 2017 study, researchers found that people of East Asian ancestry drink less than members of other groups. Certain genes may influence the tendency to drink and alcohol tolerance to quantities of alcohol.

Genes that play a role in opioid, serotonin, and dopamine systems also influence alcohol sensitivity. These genes may affect the likelihood of experiencing symptoms such as headaches after drinking small amounts.

Gender and body weight

2020 research shows that females are more likely to experience hangovers, memory problems, and liver disease from consuming alcohol. Many factors may contribute to this phenomenon.

For example, on average, females tend to weigh less than males. Individuals with lower body weights cannot process as much alcohol as individuals at higher weights.

As a result, a female’s blood alcohol concentration tends to be higher, making it more likely for females to experience headaches and hangovers.

Dehydration

Drinking alcohol causes the kidneys to excrete more fluid. This leads to excessive urination and dehydration, which may cause a headache after a small amount of alcohol.

Making sure to drink plenty of water during and after alcohol consumption can decrease the chance of headaches.

Those diagnosed with a specific type of headache may be more prone to develop a specific type of headache after consuming alcohol.

Alcohol seems to trigger both migraine and cluster headaches. However, the type of alcoholic beverage that triggers these headaches is not clear.

More research will help to determine the effects of specific alcohol content on a person’s headaches.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are fairly rare. Symptoms of cluster headaches can include:

  • tearing
  • nasal congestion
  • swelling of the face or forehead

These headaches can last between 15 minutes and 3 hours.

2021 research also linked lifestyle factors with alcohol drinking and smoking to cluster headaches and their severity.

Migraine

Migraine is more common, affecting around 12% of people in the United States.

Migraine typically begins slowly and may increase in severity if left untreated. They involve throbbing pain that generally occurs on one side of the head. These headaches can last from a few hours to a few days.

Other criteria for a person to have a migraine diagnosis include nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light or noise.

Read more about possible migraine triggers.

A person may experience migraine after drinking if they are susceptible to it. Some people may experience an alcohol-related migraine between 30 minutes and 3 hours after drinking.

Find out more about the link between alcohol and migraine.

Many different factors can contribute to a hangover as a result of drinking. Drinks containing more alcohol and congeners may worsen the chance of developing a headache.

The tables below group alcohol types by the amount of these additives.

Type of alcoholAlcohol content
Distilled spirits (rum, gin, vodka, whiskey, etc.)40%
Brandy or cognac40%
Cordials, liqueurs, and aperitifs24%
Fortified wine17%
Wine12%
Hard seltzer7%
Beer5%

In general, clear beverages contain fewer congeners than darker.

The alcohol in the blood increases more quickly with liquor than with beer. For example, if a person drinks liquor before beer, they are likely to feel the effects of the alcohol sooner.

The table below looks at congener content by alcohol type.

Type of alcoholCongener content
BrandyHigh
Red wineHigh
Rum High
WhiskeyHigh
Red wineHigh
Gin Low
VodkaLow
White wineLow

A 2019 study recognized alcoholic beverages, especially red wine, as a migraine trigger factor for people with migraine.

However, the research suggests that alcohol may not be the only trigger and may also depend on other factors.

Avoiding drinking is the best way to prevent an alcohol-related headache. Males should aim to drink two or fewer drinks daily, and females should aim to drink one or fewer.

As dehydration can cause headaches, staying hydrated when consuming alcohol is key. Aim to drink plenty of water before, after, and during alcohol consumption.

Taking over-the-counter pain medications after drinking can increase stress on the liver or irritate the stomach lining. Individuals who consume alcohol should avoid such medications before or after drinking.

Research still needs to determine which remedy is most effective. However, a headache after drinking will usually resolve itself over time.

If a headache persists or worsens, visit a doctor for an examination and treatment recommendations.

Read more about possible remedies for curing hangover-induced headaches.

Alcohol consumption causes a range of different physical symptoms.

For example, drinking even a small amount of alcohol decreases sleep quality. Sleep deprivation can cause negative effects such as increased blood pressure or gastrointestinal discomfort.

Long-term alcohol use can lead to health conditions such as:

Learn more about the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol.

Drinking even a small amount of alcohol can trigger headache symptoms in certain individuals. These symptoms may begin within minutes or hours of drinking and vary widely in severity.

Certain additives can increase the chance of developing a headache after drinking. People prone to headaches may be at a higher risk of experiencing alcohol-related headaches.

Staying hydrated and keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum can decrease the chance of experiencing a headache. Individuals who experience severe headaches after drinking alcohol may also avoid alcohol altogether.

People can talk with their doctors about possible methods to prevent or ease alcohol-induced headaches.