Anatomy of a Caffeine Headache: Causes, Remedies, Prevention
A caffeine headache has been experienced by just about anyone who consumes caffeine on a regular basis.
This caffeine-induced headache usually starts behind the eyes and then works its way up the front of the forehead as it develops further, becoming quite debilitating if left unchecked.
For some people, this can trigger a migraine, but for most people, a caffeine headache is moderately painful and varies in severity depending on the cause.
Top 5 Causes of a Caffeine Headache
- Caffeine withdrawal
- Varied caffeine consumption
- Caffeine overdose
- Caffeine sensitivity
- Caffeine allergy
How to Remedy a Caffeine Headache
The number one cause of a caffeine headache is caffeine withdrawal.
Even a small decline (30-100mg) in the amount of caffeine a person usually consumes can result in a mild headache.
People who miss their daily dose, consume less than their average, or who are detoxing from caffeine will most likely experience this type of headache.
As many have experienced, you don’t need to be an addict to experience the negative effects of caffeine
People who consume caffeine in a hit or miss fashion tend to have more caffeine-induced headaches than those that have the same amount every day.
Also, those that consume too much caffeine in a short amount of time often experience a headache as a common caffeine overdose symptom.
Finally, those who are ultra-sensitive to the caffeine molecule or who have an “allergic-like” reaction to the substance, can also experience a headache. However, this type of caffeine headache the least common.
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If you aren’t intentionally quitting caffeine, the best remedy for a caffeine withdrawal headache is to consume more caffeine.
As soon as a person begins to feel a tightness behind the eyes, he/she should evaluate their recent caffeine consumption and then consume an adequate amount of caffeine to stop the withdrawal.
Pain relievers such as Excedrin also include caffeine and can remedy the caffeine withdrawal headache faster since they contain added pain relievers.
For those that are purposely detoxing from caffeine or for those that have consumed too much caffeine, we recommend the following.
- Take pain relievers like ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, and naproxen. (use only as directed)
- Drink plenty of water.
- Avoid medications, beverages, and foods with added caffeine.
Most of the time a caffeine headache will peak in severity and then gradually get better as the body adjusts to having no caffeine.
“I find that most of the time pain killers dull the pain and a good night sleep takes care of the rest.“
Note: For those that had a moderate to severe addiction to caffeine, the headache could last for several days, but usually peaks in severity the first 24 hour period without caffeine.
The Two Best Methods for Prevention
For those that want to prevent a caffeine headache, there are basically two ways to keep a caffeine headache from developing.
- Consume about the same amount of caffeine every day. – Don’t vary consumption by any more than about 30-50 mg each and every day, even on the weekends.
- Consume zero to very little caffeine– Eliminate caffeine from the diet completely. Usually, people who have very small amounts, such as what’s in a serving of dark chocolate, won’t experience any problems with developing a caffeine-induced headache.
By understanding how a caffeine headache develops, how to remedy it, and how to prevent it; this type of headache doesn’t have to be an issue for most people.
Being aware of the caffeine content of your favorite beverages as well as being mindful of how much you have consumed are your best defenses against getting caffeine-induced headaches.
1. Our caffeine content database can help people keep track of their caffeine consumption and be aware of how much caffeine they are consuming daily.
2. Download a caffeine-tracking app. This smartphone application allows users to easily track their daily caffeine consumption.
3. Our Guide to Quitting Caffeine provides a step-by-step plan to quit or cut back on caffeine without all the painful withdrawal symptoms such as headaches.
A Personal Story of a Caffeine Headache
I was recently camping and hiking with friends and mistakingly packed decaf packets of instant coffee instead of regular instant coffee. We all got up early to start our hike and I made my morning coffee and ate a quick breakfast. Not long into our 12-mile hike to the top of a mountain, my head started to hurt just behind my eyes. It continued to get worse as the hike and morning wore on. What made matters worse was the hike’s elevation gain which caused my head to throb with every fast heartbeat.
When we finally got back to camp in the early afternoon, I doubled checked the coffee packets and realized that they were decaf. I quickly borrowed some regular coffee from my friend, took some ibuprofen, and waited for relief. Within about 30 minutes, my caffeine headache had subsided and within an hour it was gone. I was again reminded of how powerful caffeine is and how quickly it can ruin your day if you don’t get your daily dose. A caffeine headache is not fun and I question why I would choose to be dependant on a chemical that has the power to cause such pain and discomfort.
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- Smith, R. (1987). Caffeine withdrawal headache. Journal of clinical pharmacy and therapeutics, 12(1), 53-57. link
- Kendler, K. S., & Prescott, C. A. (2014). Caffeine intake, tolerance, and withdrawal in women: a population-based twin study. link
- Shapiro, R. E. (2008). Caffeine and headaches. Current pain and headache reports, 12(4), 311-315. link