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Why Does Alcohol Give Me A Headache? (Even A Small Amount)

Alcohol is a tricky thing. You grab a beer, take a few sips, start feeling nice, and then within half an hour, you’re rubbing your temples in agony, wondering, “Why does alcohol give me a headache?

We expect that if we drink too much, we’ll wake up the next day with a proverbial anvil on our head, but why do some people get a headache from alcohol after a small amount of alcohol?

In this post, we’ll explore why you get a pounding headache after drinking and why one type of alcohol/s seems to cause more of an issue than others.

Why Does Alcohol Give Me A Headache?

According to the National Headache Foundation, over 90% of people have experienced an alcohol-induced headache over the course of their lives. This happens for a lot of reasons.

This section looks at some of the general causes of alcohol-induced headaches. In later sections of this article, we’ll look at why certain specific alcohols are more prone to cause post-drinking headaches.

1. Alcohol is a diuretic.

After hours of drinking, you may notice that you visit the bathroom a lot more. Blame this on alcohol’s diuretic effects. Unfortunately, higher blood alcohol levels equal dehydration and a loss of important vitamins, minerals, and salts. 

Eventually, the chemical makeup of your body becomes unbalanced, causing a hangover headache or sore throat. In other words, these issues are a toxic byproduct of alcohol metabolism in the body.

Incidentally, this is also why you might feel dizzy or have extreme thirst after hours of heavy drinking.

2. Alcohol relaxes your blood vessels.

Drinking alcohol causes several changes in the body’s physiology. Alcohol dilates the blood vessels (at least lower levels of alcohol do), which leads to increased blood flow to the brain. This causes headaches and even migraines.

However, it should be noted that, according to Scientific American, the vasodilator effect of alcohol reverses when you drink higher levels of alcohol. 

In other words, instead of expanding the blood vessels, higher and higher levels of alcohol constrict blood vessels, causing high blood pressure. It’s one of the reasons why excessive alcohol usage can lead to heart issues.

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3. Alcohol is inflammatory:

There are animal studies that suggest a potential link between alcohol’s inflammatory effects and headaches. They found that alcohol may cause inflammation in the trigeminovascular system, which is responsible for transmitting pain signals in migraines and increasing blood flow in the brain (as previously mentioned).

This might also lead to headaches, although not all studies agree on this point. We know that alcohol is inflammatory and that people who drink often get headaches, but the direct relationship between these two is still being debated and researched.

How Much Alcohol Can Cause A Headache?

You think that hangover headaches only happen to people who drink a lot over the course of several hours. However, anyone who gets a headache after drinking a small amount of alcohol knows this isn’t the case.

The reality is several factors cause alcohol-induced headaches. 

They can include:

  • A person’s genetics
  • The person’s gender (Women are more susceptible to the effects of alcohol than men)
  • The kind of alcohol a person drinks
  • The amount of time between drinks
  • A person’s weight
  • Not drinking water when consuming alcohol
A woman holds her head in pain, suffering from a headache. There are lightning zaps next to one side and beer mugs to the other. The title reads "Why does alcohol give me headaches?"
Why does alcohol give me a headache?

Why Does One Beer Give Me A Headache?

If you’ve ever had just one beer and got a headache not long after, you’re seeing the principles in the list above in action.

For example, your genetic makeup may be such that you just can’t tolerate a lot of alcohol, or you may have a naturally-low body weight. That also doesn’t allow for much alcohol in general, beer or otherwise.

It may also be the case that you’re already dehydrated. As you may recall, any kind of alcohol will eventually dehydrate you. Dehydration is one of the reasons why you get a headache after drinking. If your body already lacks the optimal amount of fluids for your body, the headache will come on a lot faster.

It might also be the beer! Which brings me to the next question.

Why Does Beer Give Me A Headache But Not Other Alcohol?

Because we use the overarching term “alcohol” to describe different alcoholic beverages, it’s easy to forget that each type of alcohol has its own ingredients, and people react to those ingredients differently. 

Towards the end of my drinking days, I could barely tolerate beer, which I used to love. After one pint, my nose would get congested, and I’d get a throbbing headache. I didn’t have this problem with other drinks, just beer.

Why?

It boils down to the ingredients. If you are sensitive to one or more of the ingredients in beer, you may get an instant headache from consuming it.

What’s in beer that can cause you headaches?

The main culprits are:

  • Ethanol: a common headache trigger found in all forms of alcohol
  • Histamines: A chemical that can cause blood vessels to dilate, which leads to headaches
  • Tyramine: A naturally occurring substance that is produced during the fermentation phase of beer making
  • Sulfites: A food additive used to preserve the freshness of beer
  • Nitrates (Nitrites): Another preservative often used in beer

If you’re sensitive to one or more of these, you may get a pounding headache after only a small amount of beer.

There are different types of headaches associated (sometimes loosely) with alcohol consumption. Although the research is mixed as to the extent of how much alcohol consumption is directly correlated to a few of these headaches, it’s worth exploring the theories.

A woman sits on a couch with head in hands, suffering from an alcohol-related headache. There is a glass of water on the table
Why do I get a pounding headache from drinking?

Cocktail Headaches

Cocktail headaches arise around three hours after you first start drinking alcohol. These headaches make your head feel like someone is pounding on it like a drum. They tend to affect both sides of the head. 

If you’re up and moving around a lot, you may exacerbate a cocktail headache. This may partially explain why you wake up with a pounding headache after a night of drinking and dancing. 

Add that to a healthy dose of hangxiety, and you have a recipe for a ruined weekend!

Hangover Headaches

Hangover headaches are a specific kind of headache that comes as a result of drinking alcohol. This is worth mentioning because not all headaches result from alcoholic beverages.

Granted, some headaches, like migraine, can be triggered or exacerbated by drinking alcohol, but the throughline is blurry. 

However, it’s possible to have a migraine headache without having had a beer or a glass of wine. This information is helpful to know if you have chronic headaches.

If you’re working with a medical professional to determine why you get headaches, it’s important to look at every possible trigger, including alcohol. 

There are some other factors you can look at, too, when you’re trying to figure out if you’re dealing with a hangover headache as opposed to a headache that’s caused by something else.

As the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism points out, hangovers usually have several symptoms. Headaches are only one of them. If you have other hangover symptoms, like nausea or dizziness, in addition to your headache, then the likely cause of your headache is alcohol.

Migraines

When people talk about migraines, it is often assumed that they are speaking about headaches.

While headaches are a symptom of having a migraine, as the UC Davis website points out, migraines are a syndrome with other symptoms besides headaches.

A person having a migraine can also have trouble speaking, experience a loss of balance, feel some head congestion and be sensitive to noise or light.

Migraines are thought to be caused by inflammation. Drinking alcohol can increase inflammation in the body, which may be why some people experience migraines when they drink. 

Women suffer from migraines at higher rates than men and experience the effects of alcohol more severely than men, so the combination is especially tenuous for women migraine sufferers.

Cluster Headaches

Due to similarities, cluster headaches and migraine headaches often get grouped together. Both headache types can include severe headache pain and sensitivity to light.

Like migraines, they affect one gender more than another. But in this case, men are more affected by cluster headaches than women. (We get a break on this one, ladies!)

However, cluster headaches are their own separate issue.

They can sometimes be seasonal. They’re also triggered by many things, including certain kinds of foods, exertion, cigarettes, and alcohol.

Some medical professionals believe it is a chemical sensitivity to the compounds in alcohol that trigger cluster headaches. Others blame the congeners in alcohol or the dilating effects of alcohol.

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches feel like you have a tight band, like a headband, around your head. They feel different than a migraine and, in some cases, may feel different than a hangover headache.

As one article points out, a number of factors could cause tension headaches.

Drinking alcohol could create more of a risk factor for tension headaches in some people, but truth be told, people who don’t drink alcohol at all can still get tension headaches. 

However, if you find that your likelihood of getting a tension headache increases with the consumption of alcohol, you may want to avoid drinking if you have chronic tension headaches. This eliminates at least one of the possible triggers of tension headaches.

Getting rid of an alcohol-induced headache takes time. It also requires you to replenish the vitamins and nutrients that drinking alcohol has stripped out of your body.

To that end, there are a couple of steps you’ll want to take immediately if you’ve got a pounding headache after drinking.

First, remember to stay hydrated.

Remember, part of the reason why alcohol gives me (and you) a headache is that it dehydrates you. Severely.

You need to replenish your body’s water supply. 

Second, get some sleep.

It will take time for your body to metabolize the alcohol in your system. Alcohol also tends to make you sleepy. Sleep is one of the body’s go-to methods for healing, so don’t fight it.

Get some rest. Will it be high-quality sleep? Sadly, no. Alcohol disrupts your sleep quality, but get as much sleep as you can, crappy or otherwise.

Third, eat something.

Alcohol depletes your body of vitamins and minerals. Eating after you drink will help restore those nutrients. 

If you’ve been drinking heavily for a long time, good nutrition is even more important. Translation? Try to avoid scarfing an entire pizza.

Eating can also help to slow the entry of alcohol into your bloodstream, which prevents the effects of alcohol from hitting you all at once. You’ll still need to rehydrate, but at least you’ll feel the effects of the alcohol at a more manageable pace.

Can I Prevent Headaches When I Drink?

The short answer is no, or at least not very well.

At best, you can drink a lot of water in between drinks and make sure to eat while consuming alcohol to diminish its effects.

But if you want to get drunk and avoid a headache? Sorry, my friend.

If you get enough alcohol into your system, your body has to process the toxins from alcohol. Alcohol pulls vitamins and minerals out of your body. It also dilates your blood vessels. These and other factors are responsible for the headache that you get after drinking. 

So, instead of bemoaning, “why does alcohol give me a headache,” it may be time to face facts.

You get a headache after drinking because alcohol contains compounds that cause headaches. It also depletes your body of the liquids, vitamins, and minerals it needs, which are other headache triggers.

Truly, if you’re wondering how to stop alcohol headaches, not drinking at all is your best bet.

Need some resources to help with that? I’ve got you!

Curious about your drinking? Take the AUDIT Quiz:

The Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test is used by medical professionals to diagnose signs of AUD. However, this is for informational purposes only. You’ll need to visit your doctor or trained medical professional to get an official diagnosis.

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. 
1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

2. 
How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

3. 
How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

4. 
How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

5. 
How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

6. 
How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

7. 
How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

8. 
How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

9. 
Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

10. 
Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

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