Updated on February 6, 2024
8 min read

What Causes Hangovers After Drinking?

Anyone who has overindulged in alcohol has likely experienced the symptoms of a hangover. Hangovers after drinking tend to be unpleasant, but people who only drink occasionally have hangovers that resolve on their own with minimal discomfort.

However, frequent alcohol drinkers tend to suffer a decline in their quality of life.

man wondering last nights happenings while hangover

What Causes Hangovers After Drinking?

Hangover effects occur when you consume too much alcohol. They vary from person to person but usually worsen with higher alcohol intake.

Different factors contribute to hangover symptoms, such as:

Alcohol and the Immune System

Alcohol stimulates the immune system to launch an inflammatory response. This may trigger the release of certain agents responsible for a hangover's physical symptoms.

These agents include memory problems. They also involve the inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, and a disinterest in usual recreational activities.

Congeners as the Silent Culprits

Congeners are by-products of the fermentation process. Alcoholic beverages with higher congener content produce the worst hangover symptoms.

Dark liquors tend to have higher amounts of congeners. This is why many people find their hangovers after drinking whiskey worse than drinking clear liquors like vodka and gin.

The following are drinks arranged in order containing the most to the least amount of congener content:

High Congener ContentBrandy
Red Wine
Rum
Medium Congener ContentWhiskey
White Wine
Gin
Low Congener ContentVodka
Beer

What are the Symptoms of a Hangover?

Hangover symptoms vary from person to person and peak when blood alcohol concentration (BAC) returns to about zero. Symptoms typically last about 24 hours or longer. 

The severity of symptoms depends on the amount and type of alcohol you consume. In general, hangover symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Extreme thirst
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Poor sleep
  • Increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • Dizziness or room-spinning sensation
  • Shakiness
  • Concentration problems
  • Mood disturbances
  • Rapid heartbeat

What Factors Affect Hangover Severity?

Although drinking more alcohol tends to worsen hangover symptoms, some people are at risk regardless of how much they consume. Other factors affecting the intensity of hangover symptoms include:

  • Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach
  • Using other drugs, such as nicotine, along with alcohol
  • Sleeping poorly after drinking
  • A family history of alcoholism, inidicating an inherited problem with processing alcohol
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What are Hangover’s Health Effects?

In addition to feeling awful, hangovers can interfere with your ability to concentrate. They reduce dexterity and affect your memory.

Even people who aren’t frequent alcohol drinkers suffer when they have a hangover. Hangovers after drinking trigger:

  • Absenteeism
  • Workplace injuries
  • Social conflicts
  • Difficulty completing tasks
  • Falling asleep at work or school

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When Is a Hangover a Medical Emergency?

Most of the time, hangovers after drinking will not cause serious medical concerns. They tend to fade and ease as you rest and rehydrate your body.

But there are occasions where severe hangover symptoms could indicate alcohol poisoning, which is life-threatening.

You should seek immediate medical attention if any of the following symptoms occur after drinking alcohol:

  • Cold or clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing or irregular breathing
  • Blue-ish or pale skin
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Difficulty remaining conscious or passing out and struggling to awaken
  • Unconsciousness

When Does a Hangover Start After Drinking?

Hangovers develop a few hours after drinking when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) drops considerably. Symptoms peak when BAC returns to zero and can last up to 24 hours or longer.

However, some people may experience what is known as "delayed hangover" symptoms. These occur when the body processes alcohol more slowly.

Symptoms may also not appear until 8 to 24 hours after drinking. This is more common in people with a family history of alcoholism or who frequently drink above recommended limits.

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How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Alcohol is commonly attributed to causing inebriation and euphoria, depending on how much alcohol a person consumes. This is due to alcohol’s various effects, which include:

  • Stimulating urine production: This causes you to urinate more often. It leads to dehydration which dizziness, thirst, and lightheadedness usually characterize.
  • Irritating the stomach lining: This makes the stomach produce more acid. It leads to stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Causing a drop in blood sugar levels: If blood sugar falls too low, you may experience shakiness, weakness, mood disturbance, fatigue, or worse, seizures.
  • Making blood vessels dilate: This causes headaches by triggering the immune system.

Why Do I Get Hungover After Two Drinks?

Some people with lower alcohol tolerance experience these effects faster with less alcohol. However, people with higher tolerance may require higher amounts of alcohol to experience these effects.

Many factors can contribute to a hangover after only two drinks, including:

  • Body weight: The more you weigh, the more alcohol it takes to reach the same BAC as someone who weighs less.
  • Gender: Typically, women will have a higher BAC than men after consuming the same amount of alcohol due to differences in body composition and metabolism.
  • Food consumption: Eating before or while drinking can slow down the absorption of alcohol and reduce its effects.
  • Type of alcohol: As mentioned earlier, drinks with higher congener content may cause worse hangovers.

Myths and Facts Surrounding Hangovers

Several myths surround hangovers, which range from hangover prevention to hangover remedies. Here are some of them and the facts to debunk them:

Myth #1: Taking a shower or drinking coffee can cure or prevent a hangover

There are no studies to support these claims. The best way to avoid a hangover is not to drink alcohol. Or, at least, drink minimally. A hangover will typically go away on its own. Just give your body enough time to eliminate the alcohol from your system.

Myth #2: After a night of drinking, having an alcoholic drink the following day will prevent a hangover ("the hair of the dog that bit you”)

This can minimize hangover symptoms for some people, but only temporarily. The truth is that doing so can worsen and prolong some hangover symptoms and set you up for a cycle of alcohol consumption.

Myth #3: The order you consume alcoholic beverages determines how bad your hangover symptoms will be ("Beer before liquor, never been sicker")

It doesn't matter what order you take your drinks in. The more alcohol you drink, no matter what kind and in what order, the worse your hangover will be. Drinking too much will always result in a hangover.

Myth #4: Eating a big meal before drinking will help prevent hangovers

A large meal may slow the absorption of alcohol, but it won't affect how much you drink or your blood alcohol concentration. It only delays and doesn't prevent hangover symptoms. Eating before drinking can make you feel less nauseous, but it's still best to avoid excessive alcohol consumption in the first place.

Myth #5: Taking aspirin or ibuprofen before drinking can help prevent a hangover

It's not recommended to mix alcohol with pain relievers. Doing so can irritate your stomach. Plus, alcohol and acetaminophen (in many pain relievers) together can be toxic to your liver. Furthermore, taking aspirin or ibuprofen before drinking is not a legitimate strategy for preventing hangovers.

Myth #6: Hangover is just dehydration

Dehydration alone would not cause headaches, irritability, and fatigue due to hangovers. Other substances like congeners and inflammatory agents also contribute to these uncomfortable symptoms.

Treatment and Prevention of Hangovers After Drinking

There are no science-backed treatments for hangovers. Moreover, the majority of “remedies” available are myths.

Over-the-counter pain remedies cannot cure a hangover, but doing so can ease specific hangover symptoms. However, mixing certain medications with alcohol can worsen other symptoms. In some cases, it can be dangerous.

To relieve hangover symptoms, it’s best to:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Rehydrate with water
  • Abstain from alcohol
  • Drink fruit juice to replenish nutrients
  • Eat carbohydrate-rich foods to increase low blood sugar and reduce nausea

Preventing Hangovers After Drinking

The only definitive way to treat a hangover is to avoid getting one in the first place by not overindulging in alcohol. The less alcohol you drink, the less likely you will develop a hangover.

It's beneficial to do the following to help avoid having a hangover the following day:

  • Ensure you eat before and while drinking to slow alcohol absorption
  • Drink a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage to help with hydration
  • Opt for types of alcohol less likely to cause hangover symptoms

Considering Alcohol Consumption Patterns

Experiencing hangovers after a few heavy drinking sessions usually discourages most people from overindulging in alcohol. However, if you frequently deal with hangover symptoms or develop a hangover every time you drink, it may suggest a deeper issue with alcohol consumption.

If you have trouble with alcohol cravings, consulting a medical professional is crucial. They can help understand and address the root cause of the recurring hangover symptoms.

Summary

Hangovers are a common and unpleasant side effect of excessive alcohol consumption. While there is no guaranteed cure for a hangover, the best way to prevent one is to drink in moderation or not at all.

Staying hydrated and getting enough rest can also help ease hangover symptoms. If you experience severe or frequent hangovers, it may be a sign of an underlying issue with alcohol dependence.

When hangovers are starting to affect the quality of your life, seek assistance and make necessary changes for your health and well-being. Ultimately, the best way to avoid a hangover is by consuming alcohol responsibly and in moderation.

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Updated on February 6, 2024

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