Treatment of Hangover Headaches

A severe head pain aggravated by sound and light, hangover headaches cost $148 billion each year in reduced job productivity and absenteeism in the United States, according to While severe, these headaches are only debilitating if left untreated.  Fortunately, understanding the cause of hangover headaches and treatment options can provide headache sufferers relief.

What are Hangover Headaches, and What Causes Them?

Hangover headaches are generally caused by drinking too much alcohol.  A hangover almost always indicates alcohol abuse, but there are times when a person can experience a hangover after drinking very little alcohol if he or she is on medicine that inhibits the breakdown of alcohol or has a particular genetic or physical disposition to hangovers.

Several factors contribute to the symptoms of pain, exhaustion, and discomfort of a hangover headache.  Excessive alcohol consumption causes increases in sweat and urination, which results not only in dehydration but also in a loss of essential vitamins, minerals, and sodium.  Because the liver has to work to detox the alcohol, it cannot properly regulate blood sugar.  The metabolism of alcohol in the liver produces a toxic byproduct called acetaldehyde which the body also has to purge, leading to discomfort. These processes in the body can lead to headaches, sweating, fatigue, sensitivity to light, and other hangover symptoms. These symptoms are magnified by magnesium deficiency, which is caused by alcohol in most people.


What are Hangover Headache Triggers?

The triggers for hangover headaches are consistent from person to person, although one person may be more sensitive to these triggers than another.

  • Binge Drinking: Overuse of alcohol is the most obvious and avoidable cause of hangover headaches.
  • Certain Medicines: Some medicines (such as Antabuse or Disulfiram) interfere with the breakdown of alcohol and acetaldehyde (a toxic byproduct made when alcohol is metabolized).  Such medicine may cause a hangover headache when drinking amounts of alcohol that otherwise would not be large enough.
  • Dehydration:  One of the major determinants of duration and severity with a hangover headache is how dehydrated the person became during the period between the start of alcohol consumption to the present.  While drinking coffee stimulates the brain and therefore helps one sober up, it also causes dehydration.  Drinking coffee when hungover will greatly aggravate a hangover headache.
  • Lack of Tolerance:  Someone who never drinks is much more susceptible to hangover headaches, even while drinking less alcohol than someone who drinks regularly. Women and some ethnicities (such as the Japanese) are naturally less tolerant to alcohol consumption and are therefore more prone to hangover headaches.
  • Severe headaches: People prone to severe headaches are much more likely to get hangovers even when drinking very small amounts of alcohol.
  • Type: Hangover headache pain is often described as throbbing, pounding, and dull.
  • Severity: The pain felt with hangover headaches is often extreme and debilitating.  It is aggravated by motion, sound, and light. The pain will often be accompanied by diarrhea, exhaustion, and nausea.
  • Duration: Though hangover headaches can last for up three days, they are usually much shorter.  Duration varies according to gender, ethnicity, body type, liver health, nutrition, age, amount of consumption, and level of dehydration.  Medicine that inhibits the breakdown of alcohol and acetaldehyde can lengthen duration as well.

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What are the Symptoms of Hangover Headaches?

Though the symptoms of hangover headaches can be similar to other types of headaches, headaches resulting from a hangover may be properly diagnosed by identifying the symptoms.
Location:  The headache pain varies in location but is usually centralized in the top right side of the brain.

The primary danger with hangovers is not the immediate but long term consequences. The binge drinking that causes hangovers in the short term may cause liver scarring, stomach bleeding, stroke, and hormonal and blood chemistry problems in the long term.

Other immediate problems may be more dangerous because they are less well known. According to,  “Manual dexterity, memory, reaction time, visual-spatial skills, and attention are all adversely affected, even when your alcohol level has fallen back down to zero.”  This impairment of these faculties could cause tragic accidents like DUIs even when the drinker is no longer drunk.

Types of Hangover Headaches

Headaches induced by alcohol consumption are the only headaches that are considered hangover headaches, though alcohol consumption may bring on a migraine in someone already prone to these severe headaches.

Hangover Headache Risk Factors

The primary risk factors for hangover headaches include the following:

  • Light versus dark alcohol: Dark alcohol contains a higher volume of congeners (chemicals used to add flavor and color) than light alcohol, contributing to more severe hangover headaches.
  • Not sleeping after consuming alcohol: Not getting the proper amount of rest after consuming alcohol can increase the severity of a hangover.
  • Not eating: By drinking on an empty stomach, you are more likely to have a worse hangover headache.
  • Using additional drugs: Accompanying alcohol consumption with drug use appears to increase the odds of a headache the next day.
  • Family history: A family history of alcoholism may indicate how your body will process alcohol (and possibly that your hangovers will be worse).

Treatment Options

The best way to deal with hangover headaches is to avoid them by drinking responsibly.  Below are listed some effective ways to relieve hangover headaches after the “responsibility ship” has sailed.


The most obvious and effective prevention for hangover headaches is responsible drinking.  This means knowing your personal physical limits.  This may also mean understanding the side effects of medicine you take.

Eat First:  Not drinking on an empty stomach also helps reduce the likelihood of a hangover headache.

Vitamin B6: Taking large amounts of vitamin B6 before drinking gives mild relief.

Anti-inflammatory Medicine:  These medicines (such as ibuprofen) may bring relief if taken while drinking, but according to when taken with alcohol they may cause stomach bleeding.

Immediate treatment

Though prevention is the best option to treat hangover headaches, there are several effective immediate treatment options that most headache sufferers report good success with.

Sleep & Time:  Sleeping in a dark, quiet place is the best way to wait out a hangover headache.  Sadly, this is not always possible because of work or other obligations.

Rehydrate: Alcohol consumption causes increased urination and sweating, which results in dehydration.  One of the most important treatments is to drink plenty of water.

Increase Blood Sugar Levels: Because the kidney is forced detox alcohol, it is unable to regulate blood sugar properly.  This not only contributes to head pain but also exhaustion and inattention.  Eating fructose containing honey or juices will help bring blood sugar levels back to normal.  High carb foods like potatoes and bread help in the same way.

Be careful to avoid acidic juices if you have been vomiting.  Acid-free juices like tomato juice will be easier on your already irritated stomach lining.

Salt:  Because of increased urination and sweating, your body has lost a lot of sodium.  Drinking a lot of water, while essential, will cause an electrolyte imbalance if you do not eat salt as well.  Savory foods like french fries will help restore this in your body.

Pain Medicine: After sleep, the fastest and most effective method to treat hangover headache is a powerful medication such as Migralex.  Migralex is designed to be easy on your stomach which is especially important in treating hangover headaches since they are so often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and irritated stomach lining. Migralex relieves the headache and reduces the throbbing, pounding pain associated with hangover headaches without the risk of irritating your stomach further. It may also help other hangover symptoms, such as foggy head and fatigue.

Hangover Headache Resources