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Alcohol and Headaches

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Updated July 06, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

It's no secret that drinking alcohol can lead to a headache the next day, one of the sings of a a hangover. But why does this happen? And how else can drinking alcohol cause a headache? Let's take a look.

Immediate Effects of Alcoholic Beverages

Ethanol (the type of alcohol in beer, wine, and other alcoholic beverages) has an immediate effect on the blood vessels in the body. It causes them to dilate, leading to the flushing feeling many drinkers experience with their first drink. Dilation of the blood vessels in the brain may cause headaches, and alcohol is considered to be a trigger for migraines. There are other ingredients in alcoholic beverages that can cause headaches as well. Red wine, for example, contains tyramine, an amino acid known to trigger migraines in some people. If you are prone to headaches, you may want to limit those drinks that tend to cause problems for you. Keep a food diary if you are unsure about which drinks are the worst.

Later Effects of Alcoholic Beverages

Ethanol has a diuretic effect on the body, causing it to produce more urine. This excess urination causes dehydration, which contributes to the symptoms of a hangover. Headache is a common symptom that many drinkers experience after a night of excessive drinking. One way to prevent this from happening is to drink plenty of non-alcoholic beverages during the day if you know you’ll be drinking that night, at a holiday party, for example, or a during a night out with friends. If you can normally take them, anti-inflammatory medications (e.g., ibuprofen, naproxen) or pain relievers such as acetaminophen can also help treat a hangover headache.

Sources:

”Alcohol and Headaches.” From the National Headache Foundation website. Accessed 11 November 2009. http://www.headaches.org/education/Headache_Topic_Sheets/Alcohol_and_Headaches

Evans, Randolph, et al. “Alcohol Hangover Headache.” Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. Volume 47 Issue 2, Pages 277 – 279.

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