Does caffeine cause migraine? Get to know caffeine’s varied effects on migraine and other headache disorders

Caffeine is often cited as a headache trigger, but for some people with migraine, a cup of coffee can offer relief in the midst of an attack. So, can caffeine cause headaches or is it safe for people with migraine to have in moderate amounts? Often, the key determining factor is the quantity of caffeine consumed. Many over-the-counter migraine and headache medications contain caffeine as a key active ingredient, sometimes for its role in aiding the body’s absorption of these medicines rather than as a treatment itself.

The line between how much coffee, tea or soda will relieve a headache versus the quantity that will cause one can vary widely from person to person and depends on a variety of factors. Read on for tips on how to evaluate your own caffeine intake and whether you should talk to your doctor about the role of caffeine in your migraine management plan.

Does caffeine affect headaches?

Caffeine is a commonly-cited migraine attack trigger, along with alcohol, artificial sweeteners and MSG. While small doses of caffeine may provide mild relief of head pain, people who consume large quantities of caffeine regularly may be at risk for withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit “cold turkey”—and that withdrawal can itself be a migraine trigger. 

Caffeine’s effects on an individual with migraine also depend on how much water that person drinks between doses. Coffee, tea or caffeinated soda can affect migraine symptoms indirectly by causing dehydration. You should try to drink at least eight, eight-ounce glasses of water per day if you aren’t drinking caffeinated drinks; if you are, try to add a full glass for each cup to offset its dehydrating effects.

Caffeine Effects by Headache Type

The effect of caffeine varies based on the individual and other dietary habits and lifestyle behaviors. However, there are some established patterns in how caffeine interacts with certain types of headaches. 

Episodic Migraine

Doctors recommend that patients with episodic migraine limit their caffeine intake to one or two beverages daily (or 200 mg caffeine). 

Daily Headache

Caffeine is often a significant contributor to frequent and chronic daily headaches. Patients with daily headaches should consider avoiding caffeine completely. 

Caffeine Withdrawal Headache

Daily caffeine intake can also lead to withdrawal headaches. If you rely heavily on acute migraine medications and are concerned about rebound headaches, consider phasing out your coffee habit first.

How to Determine Your Caffeine Limits

Once you know how much caffeine you’re consuming and where it’s coming from, start to track your caffeine intake alongside your headache frequency. Do you get a headache after drinking coffee at breakfast? Try having water instead the next day and see whether or not you have head pain. Is caffeine the active ingredient in the pain medication that’s most effective against your headaches? Swap a can of soda for your usual medicine and see if it provides the same relief. Do you tend to have headaches on days you skip your morning cup of coffee? You might be experiencing headaches due to caffeine withdrawal, especially if having caffeine soon after provides relief.

Remember to be on the lookout for caffeine in unexpected places, including some teas, chocolate, non-cola sodas and even decaffeinated coffee. Check the ingredients in any medications you take. Also, consider that caffeine levels can vary widely between different types of coffee: a large McDonald’s brew contains 133 mg of caffeine, while a venti at Starbucks has roughly 415 mg of caffeine.

How to Reduce Caffeine Tolerance

It can take as few as seven days for caffeine dependency to occur, and only 100 mg of caffeine per day to sustain that dependency. If you find your headaches are being triggered by caffeine withdrawal, don’t try to quit cold turkey: that’s a surefire recipe for more head pain. 

Reduce caffeine intake slowly, by 25% each week, to avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Consider using an online caffeine calculator or talking to your doctor to calculate your daily caffeine use, then do the math to make sure you are scaling back safely. If you are making any changes in your behaviors regarding caffeine, it’s generally a good idea to drink more water to help mitigate caffeine’s effects. Additionally, drinking enough water is part of practicing good headache hygiene.

Tracking Caffeine and Other Dietary Migraine Triggers 

The better you understand how the things you eat and drink affect your migraine, the more effectively you can make changes to reduce your headache days. Caffeine is one of many components in your diet that can influence your migraine symptoms. 

Download our free Meal Planning Toolkit to easily track your caffeine consumption and other dietary habits and learn how they may influence your symptoms. Then, share your findings with a headache specialist to make sure your treatment plan is right for you. Click here to find a nearby headache specialist today.

The American Migraine Foundation is committed to improving the lives of those living with this debilitating disease. For more of the latest news and information on migraine, visit the AMF Resource Library. For help finding a healthcare provider, check out our Find a Doctor tool. Together, we are as relentless as migraine.