Wine headaches are a complex phenomenon that may have many different causes. Some people suggest that the sulfites present in wine cause their headaches. However, other experts report that the link between sulfites in wine and headaches is less clear.

Research suggests people are more susceptible to headaches induced by wine. In general, drinking wine or excess alcohol can result in a hangover, which symptoms include a headache.

This article discusses whether sulfites in wine cause headaches. It also suggests other possible reasons people have headaches after drinking wine.

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Many people believe that sulfites in wine cause their headaches. However, we need further evidence supporting this view.

A small study published in The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that the concentration of sulfites in wine may contribute to headaches. This study was limited to young adults between 18 to 25 years old.

Participants with a history of wine headaches had a greater chance of developing a headache after drinking wine that contained a higher concentration of sulfites.

Another article published in the journal Foods suggested that organic wines have fewer sulfites and histamine, which may improve the side effects some people experience with wine.

In the 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted a study that revealed sulfite sensitivity in about 1% of the population. Following the publication of this study, the FDA required producers to identify the sulfite content on wine labels.

The results from this study led wine producers to attempt to make sulfite-free wines. Fermentation science suggests that wine producers are unable to produce sulfite-free wines. However, producers can make low-sulfite wines.

A sulfite sensitivity or allergy is different from a wine headache. A sensitivity causes allergic reactions instead of headaches. Allergies to alcohol, in particular red wine, occur in about 10% of the general population. An allergic reaction to sulfites may include the following signs and symptoms:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • sinus congestion
  • cough
  • trouble breathing
  • asthma attacks
  • redness of the skin
  • itchiness
  • hives

The available research does not suggest that sulfites cause wine headaches, but the research is still inconclusive. Other evidence suggests different reasons why some people get wine headaches.

Headaches are a possible side effect people may have from wine. People may develop a headache from drinking wine because of several factors. Some may have more than one factor that leads to a headache after drinking wine.

Factors that may explain why some people have wine headaches include:


Histamine and tyramine are biogenic amines. This is a group of chemicals that naturally occurs when fermenting grapes. These chemicals may cause headaches by binding to receptors along the blood vessels in the brain. Activating the receptors causes the blood vessels to widen, which may cause headaches.

Usually, the body can handle histamine in large amounts. However, people with histamine-intolerance syndrome are unable to tolerate histamine. Exposure to histamine in wine can cause:

  • sneezing
  • headaches
  • migraine-like headaches
  • stomach and intestinal issues
  • hives

Learn more about histamine in foods here.


Tannins are another chemical that occurs naturally in wine. They block a specific protein in the body, which increases the effect of other natural chemicals in wine called catecholamines. Increased effects of catecholamines can cause headaches.

Tannins also block another enzyme that blocks the body’s detoxification of some components, such as phenol, in wine that also contributes to migraine episodes. People who cannot tolerate red wine because it causes migraine symptoms may have low levels of the enzymes involved in detoxifying phenols from wine.

Wines with additives may also cause headaches. However, it can be challenging to identify the specific chemical that is causing side effects. Other additives in wine that may contribute to headaches in some people may include sugar and sweeteners.

Wine producers attempt to make sulfite-free wines and limit interventions to reduce or remove side effects from wine. However, it is virtually impossible to remove certain substances from wine.

Some headaches from wine occur because of the dehydrating effect of alcohol. Drinking water can help increase blood volume and circulate blood to the brain to relieve pain.

If a person develops migraine pain, they need to start migraine medication immediately. Migraine medications include triptans like sumatriptan (Imitrex), frovatriptan (Frova), and rizatriptan (Maxalt). These drugs require a prescription and it is recommended that they be taken immediately at the first signs of a migraine.

Pain relievers found over the counter may also help relieve a wine headache. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil) are two pain relievers that people can find in a pharmacy without a prescription.

The decision to treat wine headaches depends on the severity of the pain. Wine headaches may disappear without intervention or treatment.

Learn more about the best medications for headaches here.

Some wine producers add sulfur dioxide to their products. If a person believes sulfites in wine cause their headaches, avoiding wines with added sulfites may prevent headaches. However, organic and natural wines may also contain naturally occurring sulfites.

Wine producers are searching for an appropriate replacement additive for sulfur dioxide. Despite the current lack of evidence for sulfites in wine causing headaches, producers are trying to replace sulfur dioxide. Other additives may have fewer side effects than sulfur dioxide.

Other alternative additives studied include:

  • dimethyl decarbonate
  • ascorbic acid
  • phenolic compounds
  • chitosan

Physical methods to preserve wine may also reduce the need for sulfur dioxide. These include:

  • pulsed electric fields
  • microwaves
  • ultraviolet irradiation

However, sulfites are not the only cause of wine headaches. Preventing wine headaches requires first figuring out what causes wine headaches. The cause may differ from one person to the next.

Choosing different wines

In people who experience headaches from the histamine content in wines, choosing a wine with lower histamine levels may help. Rosé and white wine contain less histamines than champagne and red wine. With a sensitivity to phenols and tannins in wine, some people choose to drink only white wine, which contains less of these naturally occurring substances.

Keeping hydrated

If a person has dehydration before or after drinking wine, people may have a headache because of lower circulating blood volume. Maintaining hydration by drinking enough water can prevent wine headaches. The National Academy of Medicine suggests males drink 3.7 liters and females drink 2.7 liters of water every day.

Avoiding alcohol

Alcohol, not just wine, is a migraine trigger in about 75% of people living with migraine. Although experts say that red wine is the most reported trigger of headaches, any form of alcohol may trigger a headache in susceptible people. Avoiding wine and other alcoholic beverages may reduce headaches in people who experience them after drinking wine.

Many factors may contribute to wine headaches. Some people have sensitivities to certain components of wine, such as sulfites, tannins, and histamine.

A sulfite intolerance can lead to breathing problems and hives. Tannins and histamine may be more likely to trigger migraine and headaches in some people.