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Updated on July 31, 2023
6 min read

What Causes an Alcohol Headache and How to Prevent It?

Connection Between Alcohol and Headaches

Alcohol and headaches are sometimes connected. Whether the effect is immediate or delayed, you may have a headache after drinking too much alcohol. 

In most cases, alcohol-induced headaches resolve on their own. However, these headaches are inconvenient and painful, so it’s important to know how:

  • Alcohol's effect on the brain and body
  • How alcohol-induced headaches happen
  • What types of alcohol to avoid to prevent headaches
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How Does Alcohol Impact the Brain & Body?

The impact of alcohol varies from by person. For example, some people can drink alcohol without appearing intoxicated or experiencing extreme side effects, while others cannot. 

Several factors also influence alcohol's effects on the body. These include:

  • The amount of alcohol consumed and how fast it was consumed
  • Body size and composition
  • Dehydration
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender
  • Genetic risk
  • Hormones
  • Presence of illness
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Stomach content

Alcohol has a major impact on the brain and body. Consistent, heavy drinking often result in noticeable changes. 

Here's how alcohol impacts the brain and body:

On the Brain

Alcohol interferes with the communication pathways in the brain. It affects how the brain works and looks.

This interference can cause:

  • Behavioral changes
  • Mood swings
  • Thinking and memory problems
  • Confusion
  • Movement and coordination issues
  • Headaches
  • Blackouts

On the Heart

Chronic, long-term alcohol consumption can damage the heart. It can lead to cardiovascular diseases, such as:

  • Arrhythmias
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Stroke
  • Hypertension

On the Immune System

Alcohol can significantly weaken the immune system. This makes you susceptible to diseases because your body loses the ability to fight off infections. As a result, you easily get sick. 

On the Liver

The liver is the main organ where alcohol is metabolized. Consuming large amounts of alcohol harms the liver. It can sometimes lead to liver inflammation and other liver-related conditions, including:

On the Pancreas

Alcohol stimulates the pancreas to produce toxins that can cause pancreatitis. This condition causes blood vessels in the pancreas to swell and become inflamed. This affects digestion.

Why Does Alcohol Cause Headaches?

Ethanol, a chemical found in alcohol, is the primary cause of alcohol-related headaches. It is found in alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine, and liquor and can trigger migraine headaches.

Alcohol can cause headaches in different ways: 

  1. Alcohol is a natural diuretic: Alcohol causes you to urinate more. Excessive drinking can cause chemical imbalances and dehydration. A lack of water in the body can cause headaches. 
  2. Alcohol directly dilates blood vessels: This vasodilating property relaxes the blood vessels. This increases blood flow to the brain. When this happens, a headache develops.

If you suffer from migraines, avoid drinking alcohol or drink in moderation.

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What Types of Alcohol Cause the Worst Headaches?

The severity of your headache depends on the type of alcoholic drink you consume. Drinks with congeners will typically result in the most severe headaches. The more congeners a drink has, the more severe your headache will be.

Congeners are the byproducts of the fermentation process. Drinks with high amounts of congeners include:

  • Bourbon
  • Brandy
  • Whiskey
  • Rum
  • Red wine

Sugary mixers and tropical drinks can also cause you to drink too much. Sweeteners mask their flavors, so it’s easier to keep drinking them. This alcohol and sugar combo will make you feel worse the following day.

Lastly, drinking champagne can also lead to bad headaches. Champagne is pumped with carbon dioxide to produce bubbles. The carbon dioxide content in champagne causes quick alcohol absorption into the bloodstream. 

What are the Side Effects of A Hangover?

The short-term effects of alcohol usually manifest in the form of a hangover.

Hangover symptoms include:

  • Body weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Mood disturbances (anxiety, depression, and irritability)
  • Muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Poor concentration
  • Poor sleep
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Sensitivity to sounds and light
  • Shakiness
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting

How Long Does Alcohol Stay in Your Body?

The human body breaks down alcohol at a constant rate. However, some people may feel the effects longer than others. This is because blood alcohol concentrations are not the same for everyone. 

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) refers to the amount of alcohol in your blood in relation to the amount of water in your blood. Two people can have the same blood alcohol levels, but their BAC will differ. 

Several factors can affect your blood alcohol concentration and how your body will react to alcohol. These include:

Additionally, it is important to know the alcohol content of the beverage you’re drinking. This will determine how long alcohol will be metabolized in your body and how long the effects will last.

Here is a general estimate of how long some alcoholic drinks are broken down or metabolized in the body:

Type of Alcoholic DrinkAverage Time to Metabolize
A full glass of wine3 hours
A pint of beer2 hours
A small shot of liquor1 hour
A few drinksSeveral hours
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Why Do I Have an Alcohol Headache After One Drink?

When it comes to the onset of headaches after drinking alcohol, there is no standard time. Some people experience delayed alcohol-induced headaches, while others get immediate headaches from drinking alcohol. 

If you’re wondering why you have an alcohol headache even just after one drink, it may be because your body metabolizes alcohol differently. It may also help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What type of alcohol did you drink?
  • Did you drink too much, too soon?
  • Have you eaten anything before drinking alcohol?
  • Are you currently experiencing any form of illness?
  • Are you currently taking medications?

Furthermore, remember that your weight, age, and body composition also affect alcohol metabolism. The older you are, the harder it is for your body to metabolize alcohol.

Tips for Preventing Headaches After Drinking Alcohol 

Headaches are an unpleasant result of alcohol intoxication. They are one of the symptoms of an unpleasant hangover.

While there are home remedies and treatments for a hangover headache, prevention is always better than trying to cure it. However, if you can't avoid alcohol, remember to drink in moderation.

Here are some helpful tips for preventing headaches after drinking alcohol:

  • Avoid drinks that contain high amounts of congeners
  • Eat breakfast
  • Drink lots of water
  • Drink alternately between alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages
  • Get enough sleep
  • Never drink on an empty stomach
  • Keep track of how much you drink

How to Relieve a Hangover Headache

When you’ve had too much fun the night before and overindulgence has caught up with you, there are treatments and home remedies for a hangover headache.

The following tips will help you find relief for a hangover headache:

  • Drink plenty of water: Hydrating can replenish lost fluids; sports drinks can also work
  • Don’t forget to eat: Get your blood sugar levels up with healthy food early in the morning
  • Take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): This helps relieve headaches and muscle pains
  • Take supplements such as red ginseng and ginger: They have been studied and found to decrease the severity of hangover symptoms
  • Get lots of rest and sleep: Healing and recovery happen when you are sleeping

Ibuprofen and aspirin can help relieve headaches and pains, but you should avoid acetaminophen. Acetaminophen is toxic to the liver, compounding alcohol’s effect on the organ.

Updated on July 31, 2023
6 sources cited
Updated on July 31, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. BGSU. “Factors that Affect Intoxication.” Bowling Green State University.
  2. CDC. “Alcohol Use and Your Health.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 May 2021.
  3. Lee, Mi-Hyang et al. “Red ginseng relieves the effects of alcohol consumption and hangover symptoms in healthy men: a randomized crossover study.Food & function vol. 5,3 : 528-34. doi:10.1039/c3fo60481k
  4. NIH. “Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.” 2004, October. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  5. NM. “How Alcohol Impacts the Brain.” 2021, April. Northwestern Medicine.
  6. 7 Steps to Cure Your Hangover.” Harvard Health Publishing.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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