Many people have experienced a headache after drinking alcohol — especially after drinking too much. While headaches are generally recognized as a side effect of alcohol in many people, its reputation as a migraine headache trigger may be overestimated.

Alcohol is identified as an occasional trigger in about a third of people who experience migraine headaches, but it’s only a consistent trigger in about 10 percent of migraine sufferers.

Keep reading to learn how alcohol triggers migraine or other headaches, and what you can do about it.

There are many things that can trigger migraine headaches — stress, lights, smells, and even certain foods and drinks. Some examples of food and drinks that can trigger migraine headaches include:

Types of headaches associated with alcohol

When investigating what’s triggering your headaches, it’s important to know exactly what kind of headache you’re experiencing. Alcoholic drinks are usually associated with certain types of headaches like:

  • migraine without aura
  • migraine with aura
  • cluster headache
  • tension headache

While people who have these headaches report a connection to alcohol, there’s no real consistency in how alcohol causes these headaches to develop, according to studies that have been done. Instead, researchers suggest that alcohol as a trigger is more of a personal reaction — common in certain types of headaches — than a general effect.

The number of drinks you have, what you are drinking, and what’s going on in your life may be the primary culprits, rather than alcohol itself.

Conflicting research about alcohol-related headaches

People who consume greater quantities of alcohol report more alcohol-related headaches, according to several studies. Then again, in some groups, alcohol appears to have protective effects against headaches.

There has been some research into the effect alcohol has in increasing blood flow to certain parts of the brain, but whether this causes or relieves headache symptoms depends largely on the type of headache.

Another thing that remains unclear is whether the type of alcohol you drink determines whether or not you will get a migraine headache. Some studies found that red wine is a main trigger in migraine with aura and cluster type migraine, but they also note that all alcohol could have the same effect.

“All alcoholic drinks provoke headache, and the type of beverage most frequently consumed in a country will probably be the type of alcoholic drinks most commonly reported to trigger headache.”

Alessandro Panconesi, author of the article, Alcohol-induced headaches: Evidence for a central mechanism?

Alcohol has different effects on the body depending on when you drink it. These are called immediate and delayed alcohol-induced headaches.

Early effects of alcohol can dull sensations and have an analgesic effect, but as alcohol leaves the body it can have the opposite effect and actually increase sensitivity to pain. Some studies have reported that alcohol can trigger a migraine headache in people who are sensitive to it in as little as 30 minutes — or it could take 3 hours.

Headaches from alcohol withdrawal — also known as delayed alcohol-induced headache (DAIH) or hangovers — usually develop the morning after you drink alcohol, when the level of alcohol in your blood drops to almost nothing.

About two-thirds of people who drink alcohol develop these headaches. People who suffer from migraine are more prone to these reactions — even after drinking less alcohol than people who don’t get migraine headaches.

Avoiding alcohol isn’t the only way to avoid an alcohol-related migraine headache. There are some health benefits to moderate alcohol consumption, but the key is knowing what types of alcohol cause your headaches, in what amounts, and what other factors might be involved.

Because alcohol use is frequently associated with stress, it’s important to keep a diary of:

  • what you’re drinking
  • how much you’re drinking
  • what else happened that day (such as stress, lack of sleep)
  • how often you develop headaches after drinking this type of alcohol

If you notice consistent patterns, then chances are it’s the alcohol that’s causing your migraine headache.

Without a consistent cause-and-effect situation, though, it could be a number of factors — not just alcohol — that are triggering your migraine headache. If you do notice a pattern, especially with particular types of alcohol over others, you may choose to avoid the offending drinks.

There are also steps you can take to avoid developing a delayed alcohol-induced headache. These include:

  • drinking in moderation
  • sipping your drink slowly
  • alternating your alcoholic drink with non-alcoholic drinks
  • mixing your drinks with fruit or vegetable juices
  • eating 2 tablespoons of honey before drinking
  • eating greasy foods before you drink to slow the absorption of alcohol

If you’ve identified alcohol as a trigger for your migraine headaches, avoiding it altogether is probably best. The same is true if you find that some types of alcohol trigger your migraine headaches more than others. Avoiding migraine triggers is one of the only sure-fire ways to avoid migraine symptoms.

If you do develop a migraine headache while drinking alcohol, or immediately after, you can try the following techniques to relieve your symptoms:

For delayed headaches, or hangovers, you can try:

  • drinking tomato juice
  • drink fluids with minerals and salts
  • try sports drinks
  • drink coffee right away or another drink with caffeine
  • consider ibuprofen over other over-the-counter medications for pain relief

Whether or not alcohol is a migraine headache trigger is debatable. While some people do experience migraine headaches after drinking alcohol, not everyone does.

In many cases, researchers say it’s more a matter of individual triggers or other factors that coincide with your alcohol consumption, like stress.

If you experience migraine headaches after drinking alcohol, it may be best to avoid alcohol. Talk with a doctor about ways to identify your migraine triggers and what to do if you develop these headaches.