Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal—Worse Than Headaches

The symptoms of caffeine withdrawal can be severe, extending beyond headaches to keep you from performing your daily life functions.

symptoms of caffeine withdrawal

Are you addicted to caffeine? Once you’ve become tolerant to caffeine, you need more and more to get its stimulating effects. If you don’t consume it, your body experiences symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

Do you have a caffeine addiction? It’s not uncommon. As little as 100 milligrams of caffeine a day, the amount in about 12 ounces of coffee, can lead to symptoms of caffeine withdrawal—e.g., headaches and marked fatigue—when caffeine consumption is discontinued.

Higher daily doses of caffeine (the average adult caffeine consumer in the U.S. ingests about 280 milligrams a day) are even more likely to lead to caffeine withdrawal symptoms, and those symptoms are more likely to be severe, research shows.[1]

The Addictive Nature of Caffeine

Caffeine is an addictive chemical compound, meaning its regular use leads to dependence, tolerance, and withdrawal. Once you’ve become tolerant to caffeine, you need more and more caffeine to get its stimulating effects, and if you don’t consume it, your body goes into withdrawal mode.

When you abruptly stop (or substantially reduce) your normal daily caffeine ingestion, a characteristic withdrawal syndrome develops. This syndrome, aptly named “caffeine withdrawal syndrome,” has been well-researched and is included in the DSM-5, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as a substance-related and addictive disorder.[2]

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Common Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal

Caffeine withdrawal syndrome is indicated by three or more of the following classic symptoms:

  • Headaches. A caffeine withdrawal headache can be throbbing and severe. While they are considered the “hallmark” symptom of caffeine withdrawal, they don’t always occur. Caffeine withdrawal headaches are reported in about 50 percent of users who suddenly abstain. They are often referred to as the “worst headaches” ever experienced.
  • Marked fatigue or drowsiness. Regular caffeine users who abstain report decreased motivation to work, decreased alertness, and more overall fatigue and drowsiness.
  • Dysphoric mood, depressed mood, or irritability. Medical experts point out that withdrawal from caffeine can look like mild depression.[3] In addition to increasing or causing feelings of dysphoria, depression, and irritability, caffeine withdrawal, studies have documented, can decrease sociability.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Studies show that when regular caffeine users abstain, their performance on behavioral and cognitive tests (e.g., sustained attention) is impaired.
  • Flu-like symptoms (nausea, vomiting, or muscle pain/stiffness). Feeling achy and flu-like or having an upset stomach are also common caffeine withdrawal symptoms, although they may go less noticed and less frequently reported.

Timing of Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms

Caffeine withdrawal symptoms usually begin within 12 to 24 hours of stopping caffeine, and they peak after one or two days of caffeine abstinence. They usually last for a total of two to nine days, although caffeine withdrawal headaches may last up to 21 days.

Caffeine Withdrawal Symptoms and Daily Life

As noted above, caffeine withdrawal symptoms are known to impair our ability to function in normal daily activities. A person is considered to be suffering from “caffeine withdrawal syndrome” if symptoms cause significant distress in their interactions with others, work, or other important areas of functioning.

Because of their caffeine withdrawal symptoms, people may be unable to work, study, exercise, or care for children. They may fall asleep at work, end a vacation early, miss a religious service, or cancel a social gathering. About 10 to 55 percent of caffeine users who stop will experience this type of significant functional impairment.

Avoid Symptoms of Caffeine Withdrawal by Tapering Off Properly

Gradually reducing your caffeine intake over a period of days or weeks reduces the likelihood you will experience any caffeine withdrawal symptoms at all. Research shows that tapering off 25 percent every two days will work best for avoiding symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

“But even just 15 to 25 mg twice per day, upon awakening and the early afternoon, can help with some of the symptoms,” according to Dr. Ali Canton, MD, of the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, whose research team presented a review of the scientific literature looking at caffeine withdrawal at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual 2013 meeting.[3]

Dr. Canton is referring to the fact that doses of caffeine significantly less than one’s usual dose may be sufficient to prevent and treat caffeine withdrawal symptoms (e.g., consumption of 25 mg by a person who regularly consumes 300 mg).

What’s Your Caffeine Withdrawal Experience?

Many people have a tough time trying to give up caffeine, making multiple attempts to quit but ultimately failing. Does this sound familiar? Or maybe you have been able to successfully stop ingesting caffeine. If so, what strategies did you use? Tell us in the Comments section below.


[1] Psychopharmacology (Berl). 2004 Oct;176(1):1-29.
[2] DSM-V. Caffeine Withdrawal. 2013 May 27:507-8.
[3] Medscape Psych. An Overlooked Withdrawal Syndrome? 2013 June 13.


Originally published in 2014, this post is regularly updated.

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Comments
  • Dennis P.

    Very one-sided presentation. I find many of your so-called “expert advice” bulletins to be like that, meaning too simplistic. Please be a bit more subtle and include some of the facts and arguments from the other side.

  • Raven

    I am two weeks without caffeine and I went cold turkey. I have found that my headaches lasted only 2 days, but my fatigue and fog have lasted almost 2 weeks. Soooooo ready to be clear headed again!

  • Leila T.

    There job is to present a health blog Dennis. I find their presentation to be quite apt for the lay-person and they have included citations should you feel you need more. You are also quite capable of reading up on other presentations should you feel fit. UHN feels this is accurate and presents what they feel is accurate and correct. ‘Other side’ sounds incorrect from a health perspective.

  • ty ..

    I have been caffeine free for 6 months and am still going through withdrawal symptoms of fatigue, but i have been a regular user for 30 years so i had a strong dependency.

  • Some have withdrawals for 6 months before feeling normal, but all of them say it’s worth it so stay strong.

  • I am currently withdrawing from caffeine (day 5) and experiencing headaches and fatigue but worst of all – excruciating lower back pain! I know this is because my adrenal glands are worn out but I have gone through caffeine detoxes before and never has it been so severe. Any tips? I end up popping a few Tylenols to get me through the day. Anything more holistic?

  • I am on day five of caffeine withdrawal. My stomach is killing me. I also had lower back pain. Does anyone have a racing heartbeat?

  • Good article, to bad many commentors in need missed the end part about tapering. There is literally no reason not to taper, you are probably damaging your long term health by stopping cold turkey if your dependence was high enough.

  • I tapered even more slowly. Halved the dosage every seven days. The withdrawal was very mild.

  • Travis B.

    I have been drinking Monster Ulta everyday for the past 2 years. Which has 140 mg of caffeine per can. I suddenly stopped drinking the caffeine and I experienced a migraine headache, which included light sensitivity, sound sensitivity, hot flashes, vomiting and even a very upset stomach. Day 3 of not having any caffeine includes a headache, upset and gaseous stomach, and not wanting to do anything at work. I’m taking OTC meds to counteract the symptoms of withdraw and they are being managed well.

  • I was drinking very strong coffees, I think in total probably over 200mg a day. I wanted to stop because it hurt my stomach and I felt so addicted and run down. Yesterday I didn’t drink any cofffee, and a migraine hit, completely debilitating like I never experienced and I started uncontrollably vomiting. Medics came and said my blood pressure shot up to 180 but in the hospital all the checks showed it was normal and the heart was fine, eventually I was able to leave after a few hours of IV but the headache continues. I thought about tapering but dud but did not expect to be so wolloped on the first day so now it’s too late to change that.. In the past when I would cut out more slowly I still had significant withdrawal symptoms and found that when I taper, it’s slightly less painful but involves a longer period to suffer withdrawals. I never experienced such pain in the head.

  • Holly H.

    This article helped me.
    On Sept 27, I decided to handle my coffee addiction – I was a 1/2 -1 pot a day girl (yea, when I do something I really like to do it!)

    So I woke up and quite cold turkey. Interestingly enough, I have not had huge issues with headaches. But I am going to suggest to anyone else who decides to do the same thing that you taper-rather than trying to go cold turkey. Here is the timeline.

    Thurs. Sept 27 – Cold Turkey Quit

    Friday, Sept 28 – I held out until 3 pm and then had two large cups of coffee.

    Saturday, Sept. 29 – No coffee

    Sunday, Sept 30 – No coffee (starting to get body aches)

    Monday, Oct 1 – No coffee (have body aches so bad it is uncomfortable to site down. My daughter tells me that I am getting old!)

    Tuesday, Oct 2 – More body aches – I have only experienced this with the flu. I Google “side effects of coffee withdrawal” because damn, I am not getting THAT old!. I get this article article which suggests tapering – I get a large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

    Wednesday, Oct 3 – One small DD coffee (the body aches are gone)

    Thursday, Oct 4 – One small DD coffee – it actually doesn’t taste good.

    Friday, Oct 5 – One small instant coffee

    Saturday, Oct 6 – 1/2 cup of instant coffee

    Sunday, Oct 7 – No Coffee!!!!!

    So there you have it – tapering was the way to go for me and taking extra vit C when I had cravings also really helped. Also, not buying coffee for the house helped – I was forced to go out for it while I was tapering.

  • I quit caffeine (trying to) two days ago and life is miserable. I never realized I drank so much. Sometimes in the morn some soda, afternoon soda can, put for dinner 2-3 refills, home in evening maybe a glass or two. I tried going down to one can right away… massive headache, fatigue, irritability, severe shaking, depression, couldn’t function, focus, no energy. Ugh. Read about tapering off a little and trying that…hopefully it works…. but in order to taper off where I was I would still need a lot of caffeine…. so I’m not doing that. Still only going to try to do two cans at the most. I look like hell since cutting back caffeine because I can’t function. I was cutting back because I don’t like having to rely on or need something, but I cannot believe my whole bodily system so jolted and shocked from caffeine that it might just have to be done. I’m miserable.

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