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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.
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.
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.
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.