Can alcohol detox cause headaches?

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Can alcohol detox cause headaches?

Yes, alcohol detox can cause headaches. The headaches are a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. Symptom can begin with a mild headache but becomes severe about 72 hours after your last drink. The withdrawal headaches can persist for weeks, months, or years due to the onset of post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS). 

Alcohol detox can also trigger tensions headaches, cluster headaches, and migraines. The headaches plus the first mild symptoms are vital signs that your body is entering into alcohol withdrawal. 

When you quit drinking, the brain goes into shock as it seeks to restore the equilibrium before the alcohol use. Alcohol withdrawal headaches are more dangerous than any other substance use. 

Alcohol withdrawal occurs within hours after your last drink. The timeline for PAWS (post-acute withdrawal syndrome) varies depending on the type of drug, among other factors. Since these symptoms are intense at the onset, many recovering alcoholics find themselves experiencing migraines. 

The first alcohol withdrawal symptoms are anxiety and headaches. Other symptoms that appear are: 

  • Vomiting and nausea 
  • Cravings 
  • Insomnia 
  • Tremors 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Sweating 

How to help alcohol withdrawal headache? 

Withdrawal headaches can range from slight, moderate to severe headaches. You can handle the headaches by: 

Take lots of fluids that contain electrolytes.  Most people who struggle with alcohol dependence suffer from dehydration and nausea when they withdraw.

However, when you regularly take liquids such as fruit juice, water, and sports drinks containing sodium, magnesium, and calcium, the body will be able to rebuild itself hence lowering the intensity of the headaches. 

Find support. Alcohol withdrawal is a time of anxiety, doubt, and fear. Aside from the physical symptoms of withdrawal, you are likely to experience psychological symptoms that include difficulty thinking clearly, confusion, nightmares, depression, irritability, or becoming easily excited.

You need to have support from a friend or family member to help you through these alcohol withdrawal symptoms. 

Meditation, yoga and breathing exercises. These exercises help calm the mind and relax the body. 

Maintain a healthy, balanced diet.  Make dietary changes and include healthy, fresh foods. Avoid sugary foods and supplement your craving for sugar with fruits and healthy teas such as green tea. 

Receive proper medical care. Long-term alcohol use can lead to dangerous withdrawal symptoms such as delirium tremens. Left unchecked, these severe symptoms can be life threatening.  

People who try to detox cold turkey can end up relapsing because of the severe withdrawal symptoms.

There are specific treatments available to make the withdrawal process more manageable. The right treatment will help you manage the withdrawal headaches. 

Engage in hobbies that calm your mind. Actions such as listening to soothing music or less strenuous exercises such as walking, jogging, and swimming can help manage the headaches. 

Dizziness from alcohol withdrawal 

Dizziness is another symptom of alcohol withdrawal. If you are struggling with chronic alcohol use disorder, you can experience vertigo.

Vertigo is when you feel like the world is spinning even though you are still. It is not safe to experience this symptom independently, as the distress can lead to relapse. 

Those who experience dizziness describe it as feeling like you or the world around you (your surroundings) are moving, yet your senses tell you that you're still.

Severe vertigo can lead to nausea or vomiting because of gastrointestinal upset. 

If you have mild alcohol addiction, you will experience mild withdrawal symptoms. They include: 

  • Ataxia (impaired balance or coordination). 
  • Vertigo 
  • Slurred speech 
  • Difficulty breathing 
  • Difficulty in making decisions 
  • Confusion 
  • Memory loss 
  • Nausea and vomiting

The other severe type of symptoms can occur with or without the dizziness. These symptoms are: 

  • Confusion 
  • Seizures 
  • Respiratory problems 
  • Blue or pale skin 
  • Unconsciousness 

The dizziness caused by alcohol is also called light-headedness, faintness, or a syncopal episode. The syncopal episodes feel like you are going to fall because of the dizziness. 

The alcohol withdrawal timeline varies from one person to another. Generally, as the body learns to adjust to functioning without alcohol, the dizziness will lessen. 

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Tension headaches and alcohol 

Most people wake up with a throbbing headache after drinking alcohol. This happens because alcohol impedes the function of the central nervous system.  

Alcoholism makes the body build tolerance by suppressing the functioning of neurotransmitters, GAMA, and glutamate. Frequent drinking also disrupts the functioning of other body organs. 

Alcohol consumption triggers tension headaches in: 

a). People who are already prone to headaches or regular migraines. 

b). People who get hangovers. 

The tension headache can occur while you're drinking or a few hours after. Some people get tension headaches after drinking heavily. Others can get a headache after having as little as one drink. 

Other factors can increase the risk of tension headaches, such as: 

  • Insomnia. At first, alcohol can help you sleep. But as the night progresses, it can lead to difficulty in sleeping. 
  • Dehydration. Most people who take alcohol regularly experience frequent urination. This is because alcohol is a diuretic. 
  • The toxic build-up of substances such as acetaldehyde as the body tries to get rid of the alcohol can lead to headaches. 
  • Hormonal imbalances.  An increase in stress hormones such as cortisol can lead to tension headaches. 

Any alcohol you take, be it beer, wine, or liquor, can cause headaches, including tension headaches. 

How long do headaches last after you stop drinking? 

The duration of the headaches depends on several factors. For starters, if you get a hangover headache and attempt to cure it by taking another drink, then the headache will persist.

The headache may initially stop, but after the alcohol levels decline, the headache will begin. 

If you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal, the headaches may persist if you fail to manage the withdrawal symptoms safely.

Long-term alcohol users are at high risk of developing dangerous withdrawal symptoms called delirium tremens.  

If you do not manage the withdrawal symptoms properly, you increase your risk of possible complications. The headaches may persist for a long depending on the severity of these symptoms. 

Remember that after detox, you are also at risk of experiencing post-acute withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms may also lengthen the timeline for the headaches. 

If you combine alcohol use with other drugs, the extra chemicals from the substances also extend the duration of the headaches. In most cases, people with drinking habits also have co-occurring conditions.  

If they do not get the right treatment and support to see them through the recovery process, the headaches may persist. 

Factors such as diet and hydration determine how long the headaches will last. 

Therefore, if you consider quitting alcohol, you should be aware that the headaches may last for several weeks up to a year, depending on the aforementioned factors. 

How to stop alcohol headaches? 

You can stop the headaches by properly managing the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Headaches are one of the first symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.  

Other physical symptoms such as blood pressure and changing heart rate contribute to the onset of the headaches. There are many treatment options available that can help you properly manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms.  

Failure to do so will increase the possibility of complications and can make the withdrawal headaches persist. 

Remember, the headaches can be triggered by other underlying factors, e.g., phycological distress when you stop drinking, lack of social support, poor diet.

As such, it's important to pay attention to these factors and make changes if you wish to quit drinking. 

Why seek treatment? 

Alcohol detox is the most dangerous phase in recovery. The withdrawal process can result in dangerous symptoms such as hallucinations, dizziness, headaches, and other potentially dangerous symptoms. 

Anyone who drinks heavily should seek professional treatment care to avoid further complications or the risk of death.

Trying to detox cold turkey increases your chances of getting severe symptoms, including severe headaches, dizziness, and other serious alcohol withdrawal symptoms. 

Most people are hesitant to detox because of the discomfort of the withdrawal symptoms. If you are struggling with alcohol dependence and would like to quit drinking, you can begin by slowly tapering off the amount you take.

This approach will help you prevent the body from reacting to severe withdrawal symptoms. 

Whereas it is possible to manage mild to moderate withdrawal symptoms while detoxing at home, more severe symptoms can prove to be unbearable. 

Seeking the assistance of an addiction specialist is the best way to ensure that you fully recover from the alcohol use disorder and prevent severe alcohol withdrawal headaches. 

Abbeycare Pricing Bot

Last Updated: November 8, 2021

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.