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Alcohol and Health

How To Cure Cocktail Headaches: Cheers To Relief

February 15, 2024
20 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
February 15, 2024
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
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Reframe Content Team
February 15, 2024
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You enjoyed a beautifully crafted cocktail last night, but this morning you find yourself with a pounding headache. No one wants to feel discomfort the morning after a fun night out drinking, and a headache makes it hard to start the day energized. So why does this happen? To understand why we feel a cocktail headache after drinking, let’s understand the science behind it and learn ways we can cure it.

What is a cocktail headache?

When we wake up with a pounding headache after a night of drinking, we’re experiencing the aftermath of a cocktail headache. The uncomfortable sensation we feel — from the tightness in our head to the fog in our mind — is not just a mere inconvenience. It’s a reminder that our body is reacting to more than just the joyous clinks and cheers from the night before. Our body is trying to regain balance — an unfortunate aftermath of drinking. 

But why does this happen, and is there more to it than just a night of overindulgence?

Severe forms of cocktail headaches

Both migraine and cluster headaches can be triggered by alcohol, and drinking alcohol can make us more susceptible — although it's not clear which alcoholic drinks are the main culprits. More research is needed to understand how the specific content of alcohol affects the likelihood of getting headaches.

  1. Cluster Headaches: Cluster headaches, although rare, can cause tearing eyes, nasal congestion, and swelling of the face or forehead. They typically last between 15 minutes and 3 hours. Alcohol and other lifestyle choices can affect the severity of cluster headaches. 
  2. Migraines: Migraines are more common, affecting about 12% of people in the United States. They usually start slowly and can worsen if not treated, involving throbbing pain on one side of the head. Migraines can last from a few hours to a few days, and they often come with nausea or vomiting and sensitivity to light or noise.

    If we're prone to migraines, drinking might trigger one, and it could happen anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours after consuming alcohol. Anyone experiencing a sudden migraine attack or severe symptoms should seek professional help. Treating these headaches requires medication and more serious medical attention, so we need to know our personal medical history.

Why do cocktail headaches happen?

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Alcohol has many undesirable effects on our body, and cocktail headaches are one of those uncomfortable symptoms. Cocktail headaches happen due to an interplay of different factors. Let’s explore the underlying physiological processes that lead to our morning headaches. 


Alcohol is a diuretic — it makes our body get rid of more water than usual. Our body responds to the presence of alcohol by increasing urine production. This diuretic effect leads to increased urine production, and we might find ourselves making more than the average number of trips to the bathroom. This fluid loss from increased urination, coupled with sweating, means our body faces dehydration. 

Dehydration, the result of the diuretic effect, triggers a series of events. Our body loses water, and blood volume decreases. When there's not enough water, our blood vessels narrow. This narrowing, known as vasoconstriction, reduces the overall blood flow to our brain. When there is reduced blood flow to our brain, we feel a headache. 


Some alcoholic drinks also have compounds called congeners; they’re naturally found in alcohol as a result of the distilling and fermenting process. Darker spirits, such as whiskey and red wine, are richer in congeners than their lighter counterparts. Congeners can intensify the discomfort of headaches. Research also suggests that certain congeners may have toxic effects and can worsen hangover symptoms. So we should be mindful of our choice of drink as it can add to the intensity of our headache. 


While dehydration and vasoconstriction are part of why we feel cocktail headaches, there's a deeper layer to the story. Alcohol influences neurotransmitters in the brain, including serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates our mood and perception of pain.

As alcohol changes our balance of neurotransmitters, it can contribute to an increased sensitivity to pain, making the headache difficult to manage.

Who is susceptible to cocktail headaches?

The body’s response to alcohol varies from person to person. These factors influence how susceptible we are to cocktail headaches: 

  • Metabolism: Our metabolic rate influences how quickly our body processes alcohol. Some of us are blessed with a more efficient metabolism, allowing a more rapid breakdown of alcohol. Those with a slower metabolism, however, are more susceptible to the dehydrating effects of alcohol, increasing the likelihood of a throbbing headache.
  • Genetics: Genes also affect our susceptibility. Specific genes influence how the body metabolizes alcohol. Genes also affect the dopamine systems that are involved in our alcohol sensitivity, potentially influencing our probability of encountering symptoms like headaches. Understanding our genetic predispositions can help us understand how our body responds to different types and amounts of alcohol.
  • Health: If we have pre-existing health conditions, we may be more susceptible to dehydration because our body may already be under stress. 
  • Drinking History: Our past experiences with alcohol can influence our susceptibility to cocktail headaches. If we have a history of excessive or frequent alcohol consumption, we may develop a higher tolerance but may also be more prone to the cumulative effects of alcohol.
  • Sensitivity to Congeners: Congeners, compounds found in varying amounts in different alcoholic beverages, can influence susceptibility. If we are more sensitive to specific congeners, especially those in darker spirits, we may experience more intense discomfort after a night of revelry. 
  • Hydration Habits: Regular hydration habits can help cushion susceptibility to cocktail headaches. If we are already dehydrated before drinking, we’re likely to experience more severe headaches the next day. By staying hydrated both before and during drinking, we can become more resilient to the dehydrating effects of alcohol. 

What Are Potential Long-Term Effects?

While the occasional cocktail headache might seem like a small price to pay, chronic overindulgence can negatively affect our well-being. Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked to a range of health issues, including liver damage, cardiovascular problems, and an increased risk of mental health disorders. The occasional discomfort is often a warning sign of potential future issues.

Curing a Cocktail Headache

So, we've found ourself nursing a cocktail headache. Fear not! Relief is within reach. Here are some scientifically backed methods to bid farewell to that pounding discomfort:

  1. Drink Lots of Water: Staying hydrated is key! Water is our ally in combating dehydration, a key player in the cocktail headache ensemble. Guzzle down those H2O molecules to replenish what the alcohol stole.
  2. Replenish Electrolytes: Think beyond water. Electrolytes are essential minerals like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium that help restore our body’s chemical balance. Grab a sports drink or munch a banana to restore electrolyte balance, helping our body recover more efficiently.
  3. Get Some Caffeine: A moderate dose of caffeine can constrict blood vessels and alleviate discomfort symptoms. Since caffeine is a stimulant, it helps alleviate some of the grogginess that we might be feeling after a night of drinking. However, never mix coffee and alcohol, as the stimulant effect of caffeine can mask the effects of alcohol. Otherwise, a cup of coffee or tea might just be the remedy we need.
  4. Use a Cold Compress: Apply a cold compress to our temples. Using a cold compress works wonders by reducing inflammation and constricting blood vessels. It's a simple yet effective technique to ease the discomfort lingering from the night before.

More severe conditions such as symptoms of cluster headaches or migraines might require medical attention. Prolonged symptoms of intense headaches definitely call for professional help, medical attention, or medication.

Tips for Avoiding Future Headaches

Once we've experienced the discomfort of a cocktail headache, we learn that we probably don’t want to go through that again. While these immediate remedies offer relief, prevention is the ultimate goal. Here are some practical tips to avoid future headaches!

  • Moderation Is Key: Embrace the wisdom of moderation. Set a clear limit before the first toast, and stick to it throughout the evening. This not only safeguards our well-being but ensures that the morning after is free from the unwelcome reminder of overindulgence.
  • Stay Hydrated Throughout: Make water our trusted drinking companion. Consider adopting the "one-for-one" rule: for every alcoholic beverage we enjoy, match it with a glass of water. This keeps us both hydrated and dilutes the impact of alcohol on our system.
  • Choose Different Spirits: Choose clear spirits (vodka or gin) over darker spirits (like whiskey and red wine). Clear liquors generally contain fewer congeners, the compounds responsible for headaches and hangovers. This choice can make a significant difference even if we choose to drink. 
  • Eat Before Drinking: Lay the foundation for a smoother night by indulging in a well-balanced meal before raising a glass. Food helps slow alcohol absorption, giving our body more time to process alcohol and reducing its dehydrating effects.
  • Know Our Triggers: Pay special attention to the specific types of alcohol that trigger our discomfort. Everyone's tolerance level varies! Understanding our individual limits and our preferences lets us make informed choices, minimizing alcohol’s unwelcome aftereffects.
  • Plan Recovery Nutrition: Incorporate post-drinking nutrition into our routine. Consider foods rich in antioxidants, such as berries, leafy greens, and nuts, which can help combat oxidative stress induced by alcohol consumption. This proactive approach aids our body in recovering more efficiently.
  • Implement Regular Alcohol-Free Days: When we incorporate regular alcohol-free days into our routine, we give our body the chance to reset. This practice not only promotes better overall health but also reduces the cumulative impact of alcohol on our body, making those occasional indulgences more manageable.

Remember, these tips aren't about restricting our enjoyment; they’re meant to enhance it. They empower us to revel in the moment without the fear of discomfort. By adopting these strategies, we can savor the moments without discomfort and wake up without any lingering effects from our drinking. 

Summing Up

Drinking affects our body, and it’s important to be aware of how we can take care of ourselves in the aftermath. Cocktail headaches are not mere nuisances. They are signals from our bodies asking for balance. By understanding the science behind these headaches and adopting responsible drinking habits, we can turn our toasts into celebrations without the morning-after regrets.

So, here's to sipping smartly, staying hydrated, and drinking responsibly!

Summary FAQs

1. What exactly is a cocktail headache, and why does it happen?

A cocktail headache is the discomfort that often follows a night of indulging in alcohol. It occurs due to dehydration caused by alcohol's diuretic effect, vasoconstriction, and the presence of congeners.

 2. Are all individuals equally susceptible to cocktail headaches?

No, it depends on factors like metabolism, genetics, and overall health. Understanding our body's response allows us to make informed choices and mitigate the impact of alcohol on our well-being.

3. What role does dehydration play in causing cocktail headaches?

Alcohol's diuretic effect increases urine production, leading to dehydration. Dehydration, in turn, causes blood vessels to narrow, reducing blood flow to the brain and triggering headaches.

4. Can the choice of spirits influence the severity of cocktail headaches?

Yes, the choice of spirits matters. Clear spirits generally contain fewer congeners compared to darker ones, potentially reducing the intensity of discomfort the next day.

5. How can we alleviate a cocktail headache the morning after?

Hydrate by drinking water, replenish electrolytes, consume a moderate amount of caffeine, and apply a cold compress to our temples. These remedies can help ease the discomfort.

6. Are there long-term effects of frequent cocktail headaches?

While occasional discomfort might seem minor, chronic overindulgence can lead to more severe health issues associated with excessive alcohol consumption, such as liver damage, cardiovascular problems, and an increased risk of mental health disorders. 

7. How can we prevent cocktail headaches in the future?

Moder alcohol consumption, stay hydrated by alternating alcoholic drinks with water, choose clear spirits over darker ones, eat a well-balanced meal before drinking, and pay attention to our body's response to different types of alcohol.

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