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What is a Caffeine Headache?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A caffeine headache is a classic symptom of caffeine withdrawal, a syndrome which can strike anyone who reduces or cuts off his or her supply of caffeine. In addition to headaches, people with caffeine withdrawal may also experience fatigue, restlessness, and irritability. People who consume a lot of coffee on a regular basis can develop caffeine headaches with minor variations in their daily routines, as can people who drink as little as one cup of tea or coffee a day.

The chemistry behind the caffeine headache is fairly simple. Caffeine blocks the action of adenosine, a chemical compound which normally dilates blood vessels. When people consume caffeine, their blood vessels constrict, and over a long period of time, the body will develop hypersensitivity to adenosine in response to the constant blocking caused by caffeine. When people stop drinking caffeine or abruptly change the amount they consume, the blood vessels dilate very wide as the body's increased sensitivity allows the adenosine to work, and a caffeine headache develops.

Stopping drinking coffee can lead to a caffeine headache.
Stopping drinking coffee can lead to a caffeine headache.

A person with a caffeine headache may experience a mild headache which develops into a pounding, consistent pain. Because people don't realize how much caffeine can affect the body, they may not immediately link the headache with the consumption of coffee, tea, chocolate, and other products which contain caffeine. Drinking peppermint tea or taking peppermint extract can help address the symptoms, as can taking oral medications designed to treat headache.

Espressos contain more caffeine than coffee.
Espressos contain more caffeine than coffee.

Individuals who want to reduce the amount of caffeine in their lives should taper off slowly, so that they do not develop caffeine headaches in the process. Cutting out a cup a day, or increasing the time between cups, is a good way to start. Reducing dependence on headache medications, many of which contain caffeine, is also useful. A doctor may be able to provide assistance to a patient who is struggling with caffeine dependence and the accompanying headaches and other symptoms.

Caffeine may be used to cure a caffeine headache.
Caffeine may be used to cure a caffeine headache.

While a caffeine headache can be a very unpleasant experience, caffeine, as briefly discussed above, is also used in the treatment of headache. The constriction of blood vessels caused by caffeine can reduce the severity of a headache, which is why many headache drugs contain caffeine, and why people who experience recurrent migraines and headaches may be told to drink a cup of coffee if they notice the signs of a headache. People should be careful about using coffee to manage headaches, as they may accidentally develop caffeine dependence and make the problem worse.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

candyquilt

Caffeine is good for headaches. I drink a small cup of coffee when I have a menstrual headache. It relieves it right away! It's like medicine.

burcinc

@burcidi-- That's not so surprising. I read somewhere that caffeine acts on the same brain neurons as addictive drugs like cocaine. So we literally become addicted to caffeine.

I suggest you taper down even more slowly. Go down to two cups per day for at least a week. And then go down to one cup for at least another week. Give yourself time!

Most of us have been drinking coffee for years, it's normal for our body to be acting this way. You can also try taking a pain reliever or try taking a hot shower. That usually relieves my caffeine headache.

burcidi

My doctor told me to quit caffeine because of my anxiety. I decided to taper down slowly, so I went down to one cup of coffee instead of three first. Then, I switched to just one cup of tea.

I thought I was doing fine the first few days but then I suddenly started getting severe headaches. Now I'm back to drinking coffee because I can't take the headaches. They're so painful, they make me irritated and I have trouble concentrating.

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    • Stopping drinking coffee can lead to a caffeine headache.
      By: uwimages
      Stopping drinking coffee can lead to a caffeine headache.
    • Espressos contain more caffeine than coffee.
      By: winston
      Espressos contain more caffeine than coffee.
    • Caffeine may be used to cure a caffeine headache.
      By: tiverylucky
      Caffeine may be used to cure a caffeine headache.
    • An individual with a caffeine headache may experience a mild headache that later develops into a pounding pain.
      By: lightwavemedia
      An individual with a caffeine headache may experience a mild headache that later develops into a pounding pain.