A dull throb or a splitting pain are just two ways headaches can present themselves, but no matter how you feel when having one, you know the experience is frustrating, if not completely debilitating. But you may not know exactly why it’s happening. Plus, if you’re a nicotine user—be it cigarettes, e-cigs, nicotine pouches, chew, etc.—you may be wondering if that could be the root cause. While there’s not much concrete evidence that nicotine alone can lead to a headache, we do have some science that shows the two can be related in some instances.
Here’s what we know about nicotine and any relation to your headaches.
Can nicotine cause headaches?
There is research indicating that cigarette smoking can increase headaches, but it’s not known whether this is due to the nicotine or the other components inside tobacco smoke. The stuff inside cigarettes, for example, contains more than 7,000 chemicals, so there’s no way to really know if it’s the nicotine creating the pain—or the thousands of other compounds.
Still, we do have at least some evidence that nicotine replacement therapy, which is used to wean people off tobacco products slowly, can cause headaches. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) mention headaches as a possible side effect of smoking cessation products, like the nicotine patch.
Again, we don’t know if this is from nicotine. It could be that the people using the patches or gum are decreasing their nicotine too aggressively and are dealing with withdrawal symptoms related to tobacco use as well. It may also be the stress of not having cigarettes is creating tension headaches. There are far too many factors to draw a straight line between headaches and nicotine at this point.
How nicotine may cause a headache
Even though there aren’t any hard studies saying that nicotine is to blame, the mere nature of what nicotine does in your body could create the perfect scenario for a headache. Here’s how it works.
- Nicotine makes blood vessels narrow, which could reduce blood flow to all parts of your body, including your brain.
- Nicotine can make some medicines less effective, especially pain relievers you may rely on to keep headaches away in the first place.
- Pain receptors may change over time when using nicotine products (including tobacco), so they could be more sensitive to things that normally wouldn’t impact you.
So, if you combine the idea that nicotine may make you feel more pain with the way it makes pain relievers less effective, you may end up with a headache after a long time of never having one.
Do nicotine pouches cause headaches?
Nicotine pouches contain nicotine, either derived from tobacco plants or made synthetically in a lab. Either method eliminates the tobacco and thousands of chemicals contained in cigarettes and other tobacco products.
So, does nicotine alone cause headaches? As we looked at earlier, not necessarily. There's little to no hard evidence that nicotine itself can give you a headache.
However, if you find yourself with a headache after using a nicotine pouch, it could be from a variety of causes. In any case, you should treat it as you would any other headache. The same thing could be said for any tobacco-free product, such as e-cigarettes or vaping items.
Should I stop using nicotine if I have a headache?
Headaches can come from a number of causes, from illness and stress, to allergies and even the need for eyeglasses. It’s difficult to know the cause of a new headache, so it may not make sense to assume it’s from nicotine alone. If you consistently find that you are getting headaches when you use nicotine products, however, you may want to lower your usage or see if stopping it makes a difference.
It’s also possible that stopping nicotine can cause new or worsening headaches, since headache is one of the symptoms of withdrawal. Not using nicotine at all after a long time of having it in your life can cause all kinds of issues, from irritability to (yep, you guessed it) headaches. The time between high nicotine levels, as well as the amount of nicotine you use at once, will determine the side effects of quitting suddenly. It will also vary from person to person.
Typically, if you have a headache and aren't sure what's causing it, you should try to relieve it first so that you feel better. Then, you can look into the causes, perhaps with the help of a qualified healthcare provider, to rule out anything serious.
What is a headache exactly?
You probably already know what a headache is because most people have had one. If not, it’s a lingering pain in the head that may or may not be neurological in nature. But did you know that there are many types of headaches, and that some have very unique symptoms and causes? Before you can determine what's causing your headache in the first place, understanding the types of headaches can help you rule out some issues.
It’s important to know that headaches are very common—and also common side effects of various ailments—and almost half of adults worldwide experience at least one every year.
What are the different types of headaches?
As mentioned, there are also multiple types of headaches, but here are the most common.
Migraines can happen more often in women due to hormones. It can be life-long, recurrent, and includes pulsing pain on just one side that lasts between a few hours to three days. It can get worse with physical activity. Symptoms may also include nausea and sensitivity to bright light.
Tension headaches can occur in up to 70% of populations and affect more women than men. Stress can bring them on, as well as musculoskeletal issues in the neck. The pain, which feels like a tight band around the head, may spread to the neck and can last from a few hours to a few days. It is very debilitating.
Cluster headaches aren’t very common, happening in 1 in 1000 adults. They are, however, more common in men (at a 6:1 ratio compared to women). Pain is brief but severe and can be concentrated around one eye. Those who suffer from cluster headaches may have a red, teary eye on that side of the head, as well as a plugged nose or eyelid droop.
This final type of headache is, as the name suggests, caused by using too much headache medication or using medication for a long period of time. Women are more likely than men to have them, and it is present in just 5% of people. It's more likely to be painful when waking up in the morning.
These are just a few types of headaches, but many things can cause them. Allergies, a head injury or concussion, or eyesight issues can all cause headaches, too. Eye problems, including glaucoma and eye strain, may cause headaches as well.
Tips for how to get rid of your headache
We’re not giving out medical advice, so if you have headaches frequently or they are very painful, you should immediately speak with your doctor. However, it’s also usually OK to try some basic headache remedies to see if it helps while you figure out what’s going on.
Here are some general tips for relieving headaches.
OTC pain medication
Common over-the-counter pain medications include acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and naproxen. Remember, though, that nicotine can cause these medications to be less effectives, so you may find that they don’t work as you’ve had them work in the past.
An ice pack or cold compress on your head could distract you from the pain, as cold temperatures often help in this situation.
Take a deep breath and relax. Stress is a leading cause of headaches, especially if you frown or tense up your facial muscles while worrying or getting excited about things. Doing things you enjoy or practicing relaxation techniques and breathing exercises could make it better.
Drink plenty of water and sugar-free, caffeine-free fluids. Hydration may be all that’s needed to get rid of a pesky headache.
Ditch caffeine – or don't
Caffeine is another stimulant that can lead to headaches over time, but it can also cause them if you stop using it suddenly. If your headache came on just as you stopped your morning coffee habit, it may have nothing to do with nicotine and may simply be your body's way of saying it misses that cup of joe.
Lack of nutrients
Your body needs specific vitamins and minerals to stay balanced, and missing out on an important nutrient may cause headaches until you get your levels back up to normal. This is something that a doctor can help you with. You may be surprised that your headache is really just a clue that you’re missing magnesium, for example, or another essential component of health.
Meet with your doctor
Another possibility is that you are actually experiencing migraines, cluster headaches, or other difficult-to-treat headache conditions. These aren't always simple to solve and often require a combination of physician guidance and some prescription medications to get under control.
Again, this may have nothing at all to do with nicotine, but you'll want to tell your doctor about your nicotine use when you meet with them to talk about your headaches. When starting a course of treatment, it's best to factor in how nicotine may play a role in recovery, as well as how it may affect any medicines your doctor prescribes.
The bottom line on headaches and nicotine
By now, you should know a lot more about headaches and what causes them. Since it's not really proven that nicotine causes headaches, there's no reason to worry about them, specifically when using tobacco-free nicotine products. In fact, if you’re already using these products, stopping them suddenly and completely may increase nicotine withdrawal symptoms. You’ll want to consider how and when you quit smoking could add to your headache risk, and always discuss these topics with your healthcare professional.