How Caffeine Can Both Help and Cause Headaches

How Caffeine Can Both Help and Cause Headaches

Whether it’s coffee, tea, or soda, there’s a good chance you have a favorite caffeinated drink. Maybe you grab it to perk up in the morning or use it as a mid-afternoon pick-me-up. Either way, you know caffeine is a reliable kick-starter. It’s also a good bet that it plays a role in your headaches.

Caffeine’s link to your headaches is complex. Sometimes it can help you with head-throbbing pain. Other times, it’s the trigger that starts the piercing discomfort that leaves you lying still in a dark room. If you’ve ever wondered why (or how) caffeine does any of this, read on for the explanations.

Caffeine puts your headache into reverse in a couple of ways:

Boosting Your Pain Meds

Some headaches, like migraines, are so bad they require prescription medication. Migraine treatment can help battle the pain, nausea, light sensitivity, and other symptoms you can experience.

Over-the-counter pain relievers work, too, but they aren’t as strong. Taking them with caffeine can boost their impact. In fact, some products already have caffeine as an active ingredient. Many people report getting faster, better pain relief when they use this combination. So look for a caffeine-containing medication if you want to hit your headache with a one-two punch.

Decreasing the Blood Flow

This might sound strange, but it’s important. Headaches happen when your blood vessels swell and tighten. That puts pressure on your nerves and — boom — you’re looking for a pain reliever.

Caffeine can frequently undo that swelling by itself. It’s a vasoconstrictor — something that narrows your blood vessels. That means if you have a headache (or feel one coming on), find a soda vending machine or the coffeemaker. You could start to feel some relief after just a few sips.

As much as caffeine can help ease your pain, sometimes it’s why you’re getting a headache in the first place. Here’s how:

Sparking Withdrawal Symptoms

Enjoying your daily caffeinated drink (or three) is great — until you decide to cut back. It only takes a few weeks of consuming more than 200 mg of caffeine daily to become dependent. That’s only two cups of coffee! Give up caffeine cold turkey, and you’ll likely get a withdrawal headache.

When you quit, your narrowed blood vessels suddenly swell up again. It’s an invitation for a powerful headache. Depending on how much caffeine you usually take in, the pain could linger for weeks. If you’re determined to give it up, scale back slowly — 25% per week is a good idea.

Drying You Out

Caffeine and alcohol don’t have many similarities, but they do have one big thing in common. They both send you to the bathroom — a lot. That means if you drink too much (say, five cups of coffee a day), you’ll get dehydrated.

Just like with a hangover, dehydration from caffeine can lead to headaches. Be sure to balance your coffee, tea, or soda with a healthy amount of water. It could help you avoid head throbbers on the regular.

Feeling Sensitive

Caffeine gives nearly everyone an energy bump. For some people, it takes several sodas to rev their engines. Others get the jitters almost immediately. If a few sips make you feel like you just outran a scary clown, you might have a caffeine sensitivity.

In these cases, your metabolism is the problem. It’s likely slower than most people, so it takes longer for your body to process the caffeine. The more time it stays in your system, the stronger its impact will be. Any symptoms, including a headache, will likely linger for hours.

Causing an Allergic Reaction

It’s rare, but yes, it’s possible to be allergic to caffeine. Only a skin test can tell you for sure. Like a sensitivity, you’ll know almost immediately if you have an allergy. Basically your body thinks caffeine is dangerous (yikes!), and you’ll have an immune response.

Similar to other allergies, you might itch or break out in hives. Your biggest problem could be inflammation and swelling, though. That increased blood flow in your brain pinches your nerves, giving you a headache.

Relieving the Caffeine Pain

There’s good news when it comes to caffeine headaches, however. There are several things — other than pain medications — that can help you dodge or ditch the discomfort. To try and avoid pulsating temples altogether, drink water frequently. Remember that connection between caffeine, dehydration, and headaches (no thanks!).

If you do get a headache, try putting an ice pack on your forehead to calm the swelling. Peppermint oil can also reduce the pain. Add a few drops to your bath, diffuse it into the air, or mix it with massage oil. As an alternative, you can use peppermint leaves to make tea.

If you’re like millions of people, caffeine in some form is a regular part of your daily diet. It can get your day started on the right foot or keep you going when there’s no time to nap. Just be sure you pay attention to how your body responds to the caffeine in your system. The more you know, the better you can use it to keep the head pain at bay.

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