What is a Hangover Headache?

Symptoms and Potential Causes of This Dreaded Headache

Male asleep after party at office
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A lovely, cozy holiday party with friends, cocktails, laughter and music can be a memorable experience, as long as a hangover headache does not develop the next day.

What is a Hangover Headache?

A headache after alcohol consumption is common, occurring in about 66 percent of people, according to one study in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. A hangover headache usually occurs on both sides of the head and is located over the forehead and/or the temples.

It is pulsating, like a drum beating on your brain, and is generally worsened by physical activity—why most people want to lie on a couch when enduring one.

Once a person's blood alcohol level has declined or reduced to zero, their headache resolves. Regardless, they tend not to last more than 72 hours 

It's interesting to note that while the susceptibility of developing a hangover headache is unknown, migraineurs need only a modest amount of alcohol intake to induce a migraine attack the following day. On the other hand, non-migraineurs need a higher, intoxicating dose of alcohol to induce a hangover headache. 

In addition, it's well-known that alcohol consumption can trigger someone's underlying headache disorder. So if you already suffer from migraines, cluster headaches, or chronic daily headaches, drinking alcohol may precipitate your usual migraine or headache attack. 

What are Other Symptoms that may Accompany a Hangover Headache?

A hangover is an individualized experience, varying in severity and symptoms from person to person and episode to episode.

In addition to a headache, other common symptoms of a hangover include:

  • Poor sense of overall well-being
  • Diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

What Causes a Hangover?

Scientists are not certain as to what causes hangovers, and there are several theories. Some potential causes include: dehydration, alcohol additives, alterations in the body's hormones, and an increased level of acetaldehyde, which is a product of alcohol metabolism.

Regarding additives, individuals who drink dark liquors, which contain by-products called congeners, tend to have more frequent and more severe hangovers. For instance, in one experimental study, 33 percent of patients who consumed 1.5 g/kg of body weight of bourbon (which has high congener content) experienced a severe hangover. Only 3 percent of those who consumed the same dose of vodka (which has a lower congener content) developed a severe hangover.

Also, dehydration may play a role in hangovers. Dehydration occurs because alcohol inhibits the effect of a hormone called antidiuretic hormone (ADH). Normally ADH stimulates the kidneys to absorb water to avoid a dehydrated state. But by inhibiting ADH, water is not reabsorbed into our bodies. Instead, water is diuresed, or urinated out, at a rate that is greater than the amount of fluid being ingested. While hydration can help ease a hangover, it does not completely alleviate the symptoms.

How Do I Treat a Hangover?

There is really no good way to cure a hangover other than to avoid alcohol in the first place.

Also, there are factors felt to increase the severity of a hangover, so minimizing them may help reduce the severity of your headache. These factors include:

  • Poor physical health
  • Smoking
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Congeners
  • Lack of food consumption and fluid intake
  • Increased physical activity while intoxicated

A Word from Verywell

If you want to avoid a hangover headache, the best thing you can do is think before you drink. Is consuming alcohol worth the hangover and the headache the next day?

In addition, if you and/or others are concerned about your alcohol intake, please consult your healthcare provider, as alcohol intake can have serious health and social consequences.

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.

Sources:

Dueland AN. Headache and alcohol. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2015;55(7):1045–1049. doi:10.1111/head.12621.

Penning R, Nuland van, Fliervoet L, Olivier B, Verster J. The pathology of alcohol hangover. Current drug abuse reviews. 2010;3(2):68–75.

Verster J, Penning R. Treatment and prevention of alcohol hangover. Current drug abuse reviews. 2010;3(2):103–9.

Wiese JG, Shlipak MG, Browner WS. The alcohol hangover. Ann Intern Med. 2000;132(11):897-902.

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