What is a nicotine headache?
A nicotine headache is a side effect of consuming nicotine. Nicotine is the addictive (causes physical dependency) ingredient in cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigars and other products including most e-cigarettes. Research has shown that people who smoke are more likely to get frequent headaches.
Nicotine may stimulate the pain-sensitive nerves as they pass through the back of the throat, further increasing the tendency toward head pain. In some people, this stimulation can contribute to headaches. Usually, by removing the stimulus (nicotine), headaches will be relieved.
Although there is a link between nicotine and headaches, tobacco products contain many other chemicals as well. These other chemicals may also contribute to headaches.
What are the types of headaches associated with nicotine?
Some types of headaches are more common after nicotine use. You may have:
- Cluster headaches: This severe, focused pain can last for 30 to 45 minutes at a time. You may get cluster headaches up to eight times a day for weeks or months.
- Migraines: These headaches cause severe, throbbing pain. Studies have found conflicting results about the link between tobacco and migraines. Getting a migraine after you smoke may be linked to factors unrelated to nicotine, but research is still ongoing.
- Trigeminal neuralgia: This pain affects the nerve that runs through your cheek. This pain often occurs if a blood vessel presses on your trigeminal nerve.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes nicotine headaches?
Nicotine can give you a headache in a few different ways. It may:
- Increase the sensitivity of your brain’s pain receptors.
- Narrow your blood vessels, decreasing blood flow to your brain.
- Reduce the effectiveness of pain medications, making it harder to relieve pain.
Can you get headaches from nicotine withdrawal?
Because nicotine is addictive, you might have a headache if you stop consuming nicotine. This type of headache is a nicotine withdrawal headache. Other common smoking withdrawal symptoms include insomnia and tobacco cravings.
Physical symptoms of nicotine withdrawal usually go away after three to four weeks. It may take longer to stop mentally wanting the habit of tobacco use.
Can nicotine patches cause headaches?
Yes. Nicotine patches can help decrease your physical cravings for tobacco while you work on breaking the mental habit. These patches work, but they can cause side effects, including headaches.
Nicotine patches are a type of nicotine replacement therapy. Nicotine replacement therapy helps people who are addicted to nicotine progressively stop using it. Skin patches release small amounts of nicotine into your bloodstream without exposing you to the other harmful chemicals in tobacco.
If you have severe headaches while using nicotine patches, speak with a healthcare provider. Headaches may be a sign that the patch is giving you too much or too little nicotine.
Can e-cigarettes cause nicotine headaches?
E-cigarettes are small devices that many people use instead of cigarettes. E-cigarettes work by heating a liquid into a vapor that you inhale. People often refer to e-cigarettes as e-cigs, vape pens or vapes.
Although e-cigarettes don’t contain all the same chemicals as other tobacco products, they usually contain nicotine. One study even found that many e-cigarette products labeled “nicotine-free” still had some nicotine.
People who use e-cigarettes are more likely to experience side effects such as:
- Dry mouth or a scratchy throat.
- Loss of taste or changes in taste.
- Shortness of breath.
Can you get a nicotine headache from secondhand smoke?
No studies have shown a clear connection between secondhand smoke and headaches. But exposure to secondhand smoke can increase your risk for other health problems, including:
- Heart disease.
- Lung cancer.
In infants and children, secondhand smoke can also increase risks for:
- Ear infections.
- Lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
What are the symptoms of a nicotine headache?
The main symptom of a nicotine headache is pain. You may feel pain focused toward the back of your skull or in your face.
If you use nicotine regularly, you may also experience:
Diagnosis and Tests
How is a nicotine headache diagnosed?
To diagnose a nicotine headache, a healthcare provider may ask you questions about headache symptoms. It’s important to be honest about your nicotine use, even if your healthcare provider doesn’t directly ask if you smoke.
Your healthcare provider may want to know:
- When headache symptoms start.
- How long symptoms last.
- What factors decrease headache symptoms.
- What tobacco products you use.
- How often you use tobacco products.
Management and Treatment
How is a nicotine headache treated?
If you use nicotine regularly, your healthcare provider will likely encourage you to quit. Quitting nicotine use is the best way to get rid of nicotine headaches permanently. Giving up nicotine has many other health benefits, too.
Keep in mind that nicotine withdrawal can also lead to headaches in the first two to three weeks after quitting nicotine. To help you find nicotine withdrawal headache relief, your provider may recommend:
- Over-the-counter pain medications: Acetaminophen (Tylenol®), ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) and naproxen (Aleve®) can provide pain relief. Be aware that using nicotine can make these medicines less effective.
- Prescription medications: Medicines such as triptans (Ergomar®, Imitrex®, Maxalt®) or calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors (Nurtec®, Ubrelvy®) may relieve migraine symptoms.
Can I treat nicotine headaches at home?
You can reduce headaches and relieve nicotine withdrawal symptoms with some home remedies. You may:
How can I prevent nicotine headaches?
The best way to prevent nicotine headaches is to avoid using all tobacco products. Besides getting headaches, using tobacco significantly increases your risk of lung cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease. It also makes it harder for your body to recover from surgery and health problems.
When you quit smoking cigarettes, your health risks decline sharply. Within five years of quitting, your stroke risk may be about as low as someone who has never smoked. Your risks for mouth, throat, esophagus and bladder cancer are cut in half. And within 10 years, your risk of dying from lung cancer decreases by 50%.
Outlook / Prognosis
When do nicotine headaches stop?
Usually, nicotine headaches start going away about two to three weeks after quitting tobacco. You may still have mental symptoms, such as depression, irritability or anxiety, after physical symptoms go away.
When you quit using tobacco, the first week is the hardest. Physical symptoms like headaches, insomnia and tobacco cravings are usually the most intense in the first five days.
When should I go to the ER?
Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room if you experience:
- Convulsions (uncontrollable shakes, often with loss of consciousness).
- Delirium (sudden confusion).
- Headache following a head injury.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Shortness of breath.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Nicotine headaches may be a side effect of tobacco use. Or they may be a symptom of nicotine withdrawal. You can get nicotine headaches from cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, e-cigarettes and nicotine patches. The only way to get rid of nicotine headaches permanently is to quit using tobacco.
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