What is a Cocktail Headache?

This type of headache is less common than a hangover headache

Preparing cocktails
N+T* / Getty Images

Sipping a fizzing glass of champagne or a soothing glass of red wine during the holidays can be a pleasurable experience. For others, however, alcohol ingestion can induce a headache, within as little as three hours after consumption.

Let's take a closer look at what exactly a cocktail headache is, more formally known as an immediate alcohol-induced headache.

What is a Cocktail Headache?

While many of you are familiar with that dreaded, uncomfortable hangover headache after an evening of drinking one or more alcoholic beverages, a cocktail headache occurs that same evening and does not typically correlate with the quantity of alcohol consumption.

A cocktail headache occurs within 3 hours after a person consumes an alcoholic beverage and resolves within 72 hours. It also includes at least one of the following features:

  • The headache occurs on both sides of the head
  • The headache is throbbing or pulsating
  • The headache is aggravated by physical activity

It's interesting to note that cocktail headaches are much less common than hangover headaches, and they can be triggered by variable amounts of alcohol. In fact, for some people, just a small amount of alcohol can lead to this headache.

How Does Alcohol Trigger a Headache?

Alcohol has been reported as a trigger in common primary headache disorders, especially migraines andcluster headaches. One review study in The Journal of Headache and Pain found that about 3 percent of migraine patients reported alcohol as a headache trigger on occasion, but only 10 percent reported alcohol as a migraine trigger frequently.

Alcohol has also been found to be a potential trigger for tension-type headaches, although the evidence supporting this has is not as robust as that with migraines.

Understanding the mechanism through which alcohol can trigger these distinct headache disorders is not well understood. Scientists are leaning away from the theory that alcohol causes dilatation of blood vessels and more towards alcohol's effects on nerve cells and pain pathways in the brain.

The type of alcohol also does not seem to affect whether a person gets a headache either. For instance, while red wine has been described as a dominant trigger of migraines, white wine, champagne, sparkling wines, and beer have also been linked to headaches.

What Should I Do?

If alcohol is a headache trigger for you, please think before you drink. Ask yourself if it is worth developing a headache over and ruining your celebration or holiday or causing a headache the next day. That being said, if alcohol only occasionally causes you a headache, then moderation or striking that balance, as opposed to abstinence, may be a more reasonable approach.

A Word from Verywell

Of course, if you and/or others are concerned about your alcohol intake, please seek the guidance of your healthcare provider, as alcohol intake can have serious health and social consequences.

Finally, while this article does not focus on alcohol use disorder, if you would like more information please talk with your doctor and consider visiting the website www.niaaa.nih.gov from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.


Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

Panconesi A. Alcohol and migraine: trigger factor, consumption, mechanisms. A review. J Headache Pain. 2008 9:19-27.

Panconesi A, Bartolozzi ML, Mugnai S, Guidi L. Alcohol as a dietary trigger of primary headaches: what triggering site could be compatible? Neurol Sci 2012;33 Suppl1:S203-S205.

Panconesi A, Franchini M, Bartolozzi ML, Mugnai S, Guidi L. Alcoholic drinks as triggers in primary headaches. Pain Med 2013;14(8):1254-9.

Continue Reading