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What Causes Red Wine Headaches and How to Prevent Them

Updated on June 26, 2019

Do you ever get a headache after drinking even a small glass of red wine? Many believe the cause is sulfites, but that might not be the case. In this article, I will talk about the possible causes of a red wine headache and how to prevent them.

We’ve all been there. After a night of drinking, you wake up with the dreaded alcohol headache known as a hangover. But for some people, an intense headache or migraine can occur even after just a small glass of red wine. A wine headache is not the same as a hangover headache. It’s more like a migraine headache, accompanied by nausea and flushing. The symptoms can develop as soon as 15 minutes after the consumption of red wine, similar to an allergic reaction. There are a few different possible causes for this type of headache. It may not be the same cause for everyone.

First Let’s Talk About Sulfites

Many wines contain sulfites (including white wine), a chemical that occurs naturally during the fermentation process. It is also added after the fermentation process to help preserve the wine. Some people believe that sulfites are the cause of red wine headaches and other allergic reactions. While a wine allergy is possible, this may not be the case.

Reactions to sulfites commonly occur in people with asthma and usually cause skin reactions and difficulty breathing. Sulfites are not known to cause headaches. A lot of processed foods contain a higher number of sulfites than wine does including lunchmeat, canned soup, candy, jam, and canned soda. While it is possible for some people to have a reaction to the small amount of sulfites in wine, it is not likely to be the cause of a red wine headache.

It is possible to have an allergy to sulfites and the symptoms are different for everyone. People that have a sulfite allergy will need to find a wine without sulfites which is also known as organic wine. Organic wine is usually difficult to find and fairly expensive. Another thing to consider is the shelf life of organic wine. Since sulfites are used as a preservative in wine, its a good idea to drink sulfite free wine shortly after you purchase it.


Histamines are chemicals that are released into your body when you are having an allergic reaction. They usually cause symptoms of a runny nose, sneezing, itchy, watery eyes, hives, swelling, and headaches. High levels of histamines are found in foods and drinks that have been bacterially fermented or aged such as wine, aged cheeses, and dry meats. Red wines have 20-200% more histamine than white wine which is why people are more likely to get a reaction from drinking red wine.

Taking an antihistamine prior to drinking red wine may solve the problem. Make sure to read the directions first as some antihistamine medications don't recommend taking with alcohol. Another option is to just try to stay away from the well-aged reds or just stick to white wines.


Tyramine is an amine that is produced naturally from the breakdown of protein as food ages. It is found in aged, fermented and spoiled foods such as aged cheeses, wine, overripe and dried fruit, as well as many processed foods. Tyramine levels are known to be highest in rich, robust red wines. Tyramine is suspected to be the cause of migraine headaches in about 40% of migraine sufferers. It tightens your blood vessels which cause your blood pressure to rise just enough to induce a headache.


Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that come from the grapes skin, seeds, and stems. They give red wine that bitter taste and drying sensation on the tongue. Tannins also come from wood which is why oak aged wines have higher tannins.

Many people point to tannins as the culprit for red wine headaches because they are much higher in red wine than in white wine. Studies have shown that tannins cause the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter. High levels of serotonin can cause headaches which is more likely to happen to people that suffer from migraine headaches.

There is one test that you can do to see if tannins are the cause of your headaches. Brew a cup of black tea and let it brew much longer than you normally would (at least 10 minutes longer). Tea is high in tannins and the longer you let the tea steep, the more tannins will be released into the water. Now drink the tea and see if you get a headache. If you do, then the tannins are most likely the cause of your headaches when you drink red wine.

If you do belive that tannins are the cause of your headache you should switch to a low tannin red wine like Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir, or Malbec. Another option is to only drink white wine since there are little to no tannins in white wine.


The prostaglandins are a group of physiologically active lipid compounds that have been found in almost every tissue in humans and animals. They are enzymes from fatty acids. They are also found in wine. Drinking wine can temporarily change the balance of prostaglandins in your body. Prostaglandins are substances that can contribute to pain and swelling and can cause headaches.

Taking an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen prior to drinking wine might help because they are prostaglandin inhibitors. However, taking pain relievers in combination with alcohol is not good for the liver and can be potentially harmful. It might be a good idea to speak to your doctor first about the risk of combining alcohol and pain medication.

How to Prevent a Red Wine Headache

1. The most important thing to remember when drinking red wine is to drink plenty of water. It's easy to forget since you are already drinking something. Headaches are also linked to dehydration so making sure you are drinking a glass of water with every glass of wine. If you're getting a headache almost immediately after drinking red wine, it's not likely that dehydration is the cause.

2. You could take an over the counter pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, prior to drinking red wine, however, it is not usually recommended to mix pain medication with alcohol. I don't recommend taking them if you are a heavy drinker but its a good preventative if you just want that one glass of wine. It's always best to speak to your doctor before taking pain medication.

3. Try to avoid sugar when you are drinking wine. The combination of sugar and alcohol can heighten the risk of getting a headache. If you are sensitive to red wine, you could try drinking the drier wines to see if it helps.

4. There are products you can buy that claim to filter the wine by removing the sulfites, histamines and preservatives. Some people swear that they do work however there is no way to know if they will work for you until you try them. These products can be expensive however they are good if you want to drink cleaner wine without preservatives. The Ullo Wine Purifier and The Wand Wine Filter are both good options if you want to try this method. They both have many good reviews that say it makes the wine taste cleaner and prevents headaches and other reactions.


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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      14 months ago from UK

      This is a really informative article. I have often wondered why wine labels carry the note about containing sulfites on them.

    • NaturallyInspired profile imageAUTHOR

      Jennifer C 

      14 months ago

      Good tip Cassandra, thanks. Sounds like the tannins were the cause of your headaches. I wonder how they get the color without the skins though. I often meet people who get headaches from red wine, mostly women. I will have to keep that in mind.

    • cassandralea profile image

      Cassandra Lea Wilson 

      14 months ago from West Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

      I drink the brand naked grape which takes off the skin of the grape which contributes to headaches. I can drink the Shiraz no problem, and drink a bottle over a number of weeks. I recommend it as I used to get those headaches from red wine.


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