Are headaches common when you stop drinking?

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After stopping drinking alcohol, headaches are extremely common and will usually ease off between 12-24 hours after the last drink is consumed. Headaches will vary in severity and duration due to the amount of alcohol consumed and other factors such as hydration levels.

The image of someone holding their head after a night of drinking alcohol is a common visual representation of what is known as a ‘hangover.’  

As a headache ‘post alcohol’ consumption is common, the image is used to help people immediately recognise that someone is experiencing the ‘after effects’ of alcohol use.  Early treatment for alcohol abuse and alcoholism is important!

So why a headache?

Headaches are brought about mainly due to:

  • Dehydration
  • Chemicals found in alcohol
  • Blood Pressure
  • An adverse reaction to a particular type of alcohol
  • Genetically predisposed to headaches
  • New to alcohol

After drinking alcohol it is also common to become dehydrated. Alcohol is also a diuretic and encourages the consumer to go to the toilet more often. However the elimination of urine is usually not compensated with another fluid. Hence dehydration the morning after, a common symptom of dehydration can also be a ‘dry mouth.’

Alcohol’s chemical name is Ethanol, and the chemical components of ethanol can induce headaches when they react with the brain. This is due to congeners in alcohol they are biologically active and react with the bodies physiology. Their reactions may trigger a headache.

The effects on blood pressure will vary from person to person as those who have just began drinking or drink moderately may have differing reactions to those who have been consuming alcohol for many years and have been experiencing adverse physical reactions.

A lot has been written about an adverse reaction to certain types of alcohol and red wine always appears to be high on the list. (see Abbeycare Alcohol Allergies blog post.) However it would be a sweeping generalisation to say that all who drink red wine will suffer from headaches the morning after.

Different types of alcohol can also be shown to trigger headaches.

A question amongst those who suffer from headaches, may be “Why do I get headaches and my friends don’t?” It may be that those who encounter regular post alcohol headaches are genetically pre-disposed to them i.e. those who encounter migraines or cluster headaches without the use of alcohol.

The list above is not endless and there may be other reasons headaches may occur such as:

  • Binge drinking
  • Hunger and not eating prior to or after drinking alcohol
  • Prescription medications
  • If diagnosed with high blood pressure or hypertension
  • The effects of stress (alcohol is a depressant)
  • Or if using illegal drugs whilst drinking alcohol

The types of headache may also vary and there are normally two types:

  • Sudden onset – around 3 hours after first drink is consumed
  • Delayed onset – around 10-12 hours after first drink is consumed

A sudden onset headache usually indicates a reaction to one of the components contained in the particular brand of alcohol being used. Each different type of alcohol will be fermented in differing ways and with different products i.e. wine with grapes and beer with hops. The body may react to any one of these products or production processes and again will vary from person to person.

How long do detox headaches last?

Detox headaches can occur when detoxing (ridding the body) of harmful toxins directly contributed to the use of alcohol. The body stores these toxins and through the process of detox slowly begins to release them.

There are many toxins the body has to shed through urine, sweat and breath.

Shedding toxins or chemicals can cause headaches and the nature and length of these will vary – no two people will experience the same effects from alcohol withdrawal.

If experiencing a headache the peak times are throughout the first 7 days of withdrawal.

In withdrawal around day 3 the body will reach its most intense period as the chemicals are finally leaving. However headaches can come at any time during this period.

There is no definite time frame to say when a headache will occur, how long it will last for and if one will even occur.

A good rule of thumb is to let the healthcare provider delivering the detox know and they will be able to provide some relief.

Through:

  • General painkillers
  • Therapeutic interventions; massage, mindfulness, meditation
  • Recommending sleep
  • Hydration (non-fizzy and non-sweetener)
  • Nutritional food
  • And or a professional to talk to as the headache may be stress induced.

 

The duration of a detox headache post alcohol will usually last a maximum 72 hours and minimum 12 as the alcohol is leaving the body and hydration levels begin to rise. The intensity should also begin to taper off and within these time frames the pain experienced will gradually reduce.

  • Headache symptoms will decrease over time
  • The sufferer may be left will a foggy head and slight discomfort

Factors affecting headache onset during detox may be contributed to:

  • The detox medication
  • Sleep durations
  • Anxiety

In all of the above cases, whilst at Abbeycare residential detox programme, (Abbeycare Scotland, Abbeycare Gloucester) discussing the factors prior to headache will help the team of trained recovery specialists work to ease the symptoms.

If you are going through a at home detox alcohol and a headache occurs which has not eased within a 72-hour time frame then it is recommended to call your GP or the outreach healthcare provider administering your detox. 

In some cases a headache may be the sign of an underlying health condition and accessing professional support is always recommended.

Natural remedies for a detox headache

How long can headaches from alcohol withdrawal last?

Headaches from alcohol withdrawal will normally last around 24 hours but may continue for up to 72 hours. The headache will depend on the person and may be dependent on a manner of circumstances related to consumption levels as well as length of use.

Whilst withdrawal is occurring a common factor or symptom to experience is stress and/or anxiety both of these can contribute to headache, as the physical response to emotional unrest.

Headaches from alcohol withdrawal will vary in length and intensity.

This is due to many factors such as:

  • If a ‘cold turkey’ is the means of withdrawal
  • If a professionally administered detox is being delivered
  • The length of time a person has been dependent on alcohol
  • If there are any underlying health conditions
  • The functioning of the liver (which aids in secretion)

Making sure plenty of rest, water and food is consumed is the most practical way to feel better after an alcohol related headache occurs.

In some cases the consumption of alcohol has overtaken the need for appropriate care and attention to be administered and ‘self-care’ combined with holistic therapies which include talking therapy of any type will support the return to health and wellbeing.

Positive self-regard and an acceptance that alcohol is no longer the solution to life’s problems but is in fact the major contributor will also help. Therefore building a support network in rehab or in the local community will continue to support those who have chosen to stop using alcohol.

When will alcohol-related headaches go away?

Alcohol-related headaches will usually last 24-72 hours and the sufferer can take action to decrease the length of time they are present. However, there is no definite time frame for those enduring a headache post alcohol. Each headache will differ in length.

A common belief held is that after detox is complete the withdrawals from alcohol are now over. However, this is untrue.

Post alcohol withdrawals may last for weeks and months after detox is complete. Headaches are a common symptom throughout these weeks and months. Nobody can tell how long an individual will encounter these symptoms.

However, through time they will decrease. If they do not decrease through time an appropriate medical intervention must be sought. Headaches that continue may require further investigation such as:

  • Appropriate medication
  • A CT scans
  • MRI

Further investigation will determine if an illness or neurological condition is present and appropriate treatment can begin.

A common saying in Alcoholics Anonymous AA is ‘Over time not Overnight’ this is a helpful way to look at post withdrawal headaches.

In some case the use of alcohol may have spanned many years and the body will take time to return to homeostasis a physiological process the body undergoes to return the body to a position post alcohol dependency.

The important message is not to return to using alcohol as the body will take time to heal and a return to alcohol use may set back the processes already undertaken.

Alcohol headaches are a common factor for those withdrawing from alcohol and usually last between 24-72 hours however shorter time frames may be experienced. Post alcohol headaches can be treated by increasing hydration levels, eating a nutritious meal, and getting lots of extra sleep or rest.

That is not to say that post alcohol headaches will occur for everybody other symptoms may occur. To stay safe a stay in residential rehab may be the solution as the patient will be detoxed and rehabilitated in an environment specifically created for those withdrawing from alcohol.

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.

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.