Nicotine is the active ingredient in cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and other tobacco products. It’s a stimulant, which means it increases the activity of your central nervous system.

When nicotine enters your bloodstream, it promotes the release of two neurotransmitters: dopamine and epinephrine. The release of these brain chemicals can lead to a pleasurable “rush” or “kick.” Because nicotine also stimulates the reward centers of your brain, it’s highly addictive.

Nicotine can be linked to a variety of side effects. One of these is headache.

In this article, we’ll explore the link between nicotine and headaches, how to find relief, and more.

It’s possible that nicotine can increase your risk of headache. In fact, headache is a potential side effect of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), which is used to treat nicotine dependence. NRT works by supplementing a person with progressively lower levels of nicotine.

However, most of the research into nicotine and headaches has been performed in the context of tobacco smoking. Indeed, various studies have linked tobacco smoking with increased headache prevalence.

This point is important because nicotine isn’t the only chemical that’s in tobacco smoke. In fact, tobacco smoke actually contains a mixture of over 7,000 chemicals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This means that, in addition to nicotine, many other chemicals present in tobacco products could also contribute to headache.

How can nicotine contribute to headache?

There are a few different ways that nicotine may increase your risk of developing a headache:

  • The stimulant effects of nicotine can cause the blood vessels in your body to narrow. This can reduce blood flow to your brain, leading to headache pain.
  • Continued exposure to nicotine and other chemicals that are found in tobacco products may increase the sensitivity of pain receptors in your brain.
  • Nicotine can reduce the effects of some pain medications that are used to ease headache. Because of this, if you already have a headache when you use nicotine, it may be harder to relieve your headache pain.

There are some types of headache that are more closely associated with the use of nicotine or tobacco products. These include:

  • Cluster headache. Cluster headaches are severe headache attacks that happen in clusters that can last for weeks to months. Cluster headaches are more common in smokers, and smoking can also trigger an attack.
  • Trigeminal neuralgia. Trigeminal neuralgia is believed to happen due to a blood vessel pressing on the trigeminal nerve, located in your face and head. Pain due to this condition may be triggered by smoking.
  • Migraine. Migraine is a type of recurrent headache that causes throbbing or pulsating pain. It may be triggered by many things, including tobacco. However, a 2015 study notes that there’s conflicting data about tobacco as a migraine trigger.

E-cigarettes are small, battery-powered devices that heat a liquid into an aerosol that you then inhale. E-cigarettes are also referred to as e-cigs, vapes, or vape pens.

Most of the time, e-cigarettes contain nicotine. In fact, a 2015 study of the nicotine levels in e-cigarette refills found that even some products that were labeled as nicotine-free still contained detectable levels of nicotine.

While e-cigarettes don’t contain many of the harmful chemicals that are found in normal cigarettes, potentially harmful substances — along with nicotine — can still be found in e-cigarette aerosols. Some examples include heavy metals and known carcinogens.

E-cigarette users have reported a variety of side effects, including:

Whether these side effects are caused by nicotine or other chemicals in e-cigarette aerosols is currently unknown. Since e-cigarettes are relatively new, research is ongoing into their potential short- and long-term health effects.

One of the best ways to relieve headaches due to nicotine is to try to stop using nicotine. There are a variety of ways that you can achieve this. However, keep in mind that nicotine withdrawal can also cause headache.

If you have a headache due to nicotine use or nicotine withdrawal, you can try the following:

In addition to headache, some other symptoms that are associated with nicotine use include:

Regular nicotine use can also increase your risk of many different health conditions. These are most often associated with cigarette smoking and can include:

If you use nicotine frequently, your body and brain become used to it. When you stop using nicotine or lower your nicotine intake, it’s possible that you’ll experience nicotine withdrawal as your body adjusts to not having nicotine.

A headache can be a symptom of nicotine withdrawal. The exact mechanism of why nicotine withdrawal causes headache is still poorly understood, but it may have to do with nicotine’s effect on pain processing in your brain.

In addition to headache, nicotine withdrawal can include other physical or psychological symptoms such as:

Tips for managing withdrawal symptoms

Nicotine withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant. However, there are steps you can take to help ease these symptoms and to stay on track with your quit plan:

  • Know what to expect. Prior to embarking on your quit plan, talk with your doctor. Your doctor may suggest some specific coping strategies you can use for dealing with cravings or withdrawal symptoms.
  • Get support. Let your loved ones know that you’re quitting nicotine and ask them to help support you on your journey. Joining a support group may also be beneficial.
  • Prioritize sleep. Nicotine withdrawal can disrupt your sleep, contributing to feelings of irritability and fatigue. That’s why it’s important to prioritize your sleep each night.
  • Be active. Getting regular exercise is beneficial for your overall health, can improve your mood, and help you sleep better at night.
  • Eat healthy snacks. Some people experience an increased appetite when they quit tobacco. Try to keep healthy snacks on hand to reduce the temptation of sugary or fatty foods.
  • Drink water. Staying well hydrated may help ease your headache, and also reduce cravings.
  • Lower stress. Examples of some relaxation techniques include yoga, exercise, breathing exercises, or engaging in a hobby you enjoy.
  • Avoid triggers. Avoid situations that may urge you to use nicotine, like being around people that use tobacco or e-cigarettes.
  • Talk with your doctor about medications. Some types of medications can help you manage withdrawal symptoms. Examples include:
    • nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) lozenges, gum, or patches
    • varenicline (Chantix)
    • bupropion (Zyban)

Make an appointment with your doctor if you use tobacco and experience headaches that:

  • happen frequently
  • significantly impact your daily life
  • don’t get better or get worse with at-home care

Nicotine that’s found in tobacco and e-cigarette products can increase your risk of headaches. There are several biological mechanisms through which this may occur.

It’s also possible that other chemicals found in these products may contribute to headaches. Headaches may also happen due to nicotine withdrawal.

Medication, cool compresses, and rest may help ease a headache due to nicotine. However, one of the best ways to reduce nicotine-related headaches is to stop using nicotine. If you’re interested in quitting, your doctor or healthcare professional can help you develop a quit plan that’s right for you.