Caffeine Withdrawal

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is caffeine withdrawal?

Caffeine withdrawal occurs when a person abruptly stops consuming caffeine. Caffeine withdrawal produces unpleasant (but not harmful) symptoms, such as fatigue and headache.

Caffeine is a chemical that is found in a variety of plants, including coffee, tea, cacao, and guarana. Many people consume caffeine by enjoying a cup of coffee or tea in the morning, and manufacturers also can add caffeine to other foods and beverages, such as cola products.

Caffeine works to make a person feel more alert by blocking the activity of a chemical called adenosine in the brain. Adenosine is responsible for making you feel sleepy when it’s time to go to bed, and it lingers in your system after you wake up. By blocking adenosine activity in the brain, caffeine can help you feel awake more quickly.

If you regularly consume caffeine and then abruptly stop taking it, you may experience caffeine withdrawal. This occurs in part due to the subsequent higher level of adenosine activity in the brain. These increased adenosine levels can trigger caffeine withdrawal symptoms like a headache, irritability, and difficulty concentrating.

Fortunately, caffeine withdrawal symptoms pose no health risk and clear up on their own after a couple of days, when your body has had time to adjust its adenosine levels.

What are the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal?

By far, the most common symptom of caffeine withdrawal is headache. A caffeine withdrawal headache can be mild to severe and may include a strong “pounding” feeling. If a person experiences migraine, caffeine withdrawal might trigger an episode.

Common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal

The most common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal are:

  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Headache, including migraine
  • Irritability

Caffeine withdrawal does not require medical care unless the headache lasts more than two days, which is unlikely.

What causes caffeine withdrawal?

Caffeine withdrawal is caused by abruptly stopping your caffeine intake. If you consume caffeine regularly, your body increases the amount of adenosine in your system to compensate, so if you quit caffeine “cold turkey,” then these elevated adenosine levels cause the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

How long does it take to recover from caffeine withdrawal?

The typical caffeine withdrawal timeline usually spans only one to three days. Symptoms usually begin within hours of skipping your usual morning “dose” of caffeine. For example, if you regularly consume two cups of coffee in the morning and then one morning drink no coffee, you may get a headache within a few hours of when you normally would have consumed the coffee.

Caffeine withdrawal symptoms usually get worse over the course of a day and may peak the following day. By the second or third day, the effects of caffeine withdrawal should be gone. You can avoid experiencing severe caffeine withdrawal symptoms by gradually tapering the amount of caffeine you consume daily.

What are tips for tapering my caffeine intake?

Try these tips for tapering your caffeine intake to avoid the unpleasant effects of caffeine withdrawal:

  • Reduce your daily caffeine intake gradually, based on the number of beverages you usually consume. For example, if you normally drink four cups of coffee per day, cut back to three cups. If you normally consume 12 cans of cola a week, cut back to nine cans. Continue this approach until you stop consuming caffeine altogether.
  • Reduce your intake over the course of several days or a week.
  • Replace those caffeinated beverages with water. Increasing your water consumption may help your body normalize adenosine levels more easily and prevent a caffeine withdrawal headache.

How can you manage symptoms of caffeine withdrawal?

The best way to manage caffeine withdrawal symptoms is to anticipate them. If you plan ahead to manage the effects of quitting caffeine, then you can weather the few days of symptoms with ease.

To manage caffeine withdrawal symptoms, try:

  • Acetaminophen or another over-the-counter headache medication to reduce the pain of a caffeine withdrawal headache
  • Informing family members and coworkers that you’re quitting caffeine, so they can support you through any unpleasant effects
  • Keeping your migraine treatment at hand, in case caffeine withdrawal triggers an episode
  • Napping, if possible, when feeling fatigued due to caffeine withdrawal

No specific caffeine withdrawal treatment exists because the symptoms clear up on their own without medical intervention.

How can I avoid caffeine long-term?

Once you go caffeine-free, you should become alert to the many foods, packaged products, and beverages that might contain hidden caffeine. Read labels carefully. Some unexpected foods and beverages that might contain caffeine include:

  • Chocolate
  • Decaffeinated coffee (can contain up to 15 milligrams of caffeine per eight-ounce cup, compared to about 95 milligrams for regular coffee)
  • Energy drinks, energy bars, or any product with the word “energy” on the label
  • Food additives, including maltodextrin and tyrosine
  • Herbs, including ginseng and yerba mate
  • Ice cream (especially chocolate flavored ice cream)
  • Medications, such as some over-the-counter headache tablets
  • Tea, both hot and iced

Living without the energy jumpstart provided by caffeine is possible–and even desirable for some people, such as pregnant women or those with high blood pressure. But if you do decide to start consuming caffeine again, be aware that if you decide to quit in the future, you’ll need to go through the tapering process all over again.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 14
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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