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Anyone who has overindulged in alcohol has likely experienced the symptoms of a hangover. Hangovers after drinking tend to be unpleasant. For someone who only drinks occasionally, hangovers resolve on their own with minimal discomfort. However, frequent alcohol drinkers who often develop hangover effects tend to suffer a decline in their quality of life.

What Causes Hangovers after Drinking?

Hangover effects occur when someone consumes too much alcohol. They tend to vary from person to person but usually worsen with higher alcohol intake.

Different factors contribute to hangover symptoms. For example:

  • Alcohol stimulates urine production, causing a person to urinate more often. This leads to dehydration usually indicated by dizziness, thirst, and feeling lightheaded.
  • Alcohol causes irritation of the stomach lining, which makes the stomach produce more acid. This leads to stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Alcohol causes a drop in blood sugar levels. If blood sugar falls too low, the person may experience shakiness, weakness, mood disturbance, fatigue, or worse, seizures.
  • Alcohol makes blood vessels dilate, causing headaches.

Additionally, alcohol stimulates the immune system to launch an inflammatory response. This may trigger the release of certain agents that are responsible for the physical symptoms of a hangover. This includes memory problems, the inability to concentrate, loss of appetite, and a disinterest in usual activities.

Congeners are said to be the culprits in a hangover. These are by-products of the fermentation process. It is believed that alcoholic beverages with higher congener content produce the worst hangover symptoms.

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

The following are drinks arranged in order, from those with the most congener content to those with the least:

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

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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 is also based on the amount and type of alcohol consumed.

In general, hangover symptoms include:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Extreme thirst
  • Headaches aches
  • 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

Although drinking higher amounts of alcohol tend to worsen hangover symptoms, some people are at risk regardless of how much they consume. Other factors affecting hangover severity include:

  • Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach
  • Using other drugs, such as nicotine, along with alcohol
  • Sleeping poorly after drinking
  • Family history of alcoholism which might indicate an inherited problem with the way a person’s body processes alcohol
Is a Hangover Ever an Emergency?

Most of the time, hangovers after drinking are not cause for serious medical concerns. They tend to fade on their own and ease as you rest and rehydrate your body. But there are occasions in which serious 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

Hangover Health Effects

In addition to feeling awful, hangovers tend to interfere with your ability to concentrate. They reduce dexterity and affect your memory. Even people who are not frequent alcohol drinkers suffer when they have a hangover. Hangovers after drinking trigger:

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

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Myths and Facts Surrounding Hangovers

Several myths surround hangovers. These range from hangover prevention to hangover remedies. Here are some of them:

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

Fact: There are no studies to support these claims. The best way to avoid a hangover is to not drink alcohol (or at least drink minimally). A hangover will normally go away on its own. Just give your body enough time to get rid of the alcohol from your system.

Myth #2: After a night of drinking, having an alcoholic drink the next morning will prevent a hangover. This is a practice called "the hair of the dog that bit you."

Fact: For some people, this has been shown to minimize hangover symptoms, but only temporarily. The truth is, doing this can actually worsen and prolong some symptoms of a hangover.  

Myth #3: "Beer before liquor, never been sicker" means that the order by which you consume alcoholic beverages determines how bad your hangover symptoms will be.

Fact: 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.

Treatment and Prevention of Hangovers After Drinking

There are no science-backed treatments for hangovers. The majority of “remedies” available are myths. Over-the-counter pain remedies cannot cure a hangover. They can ease certain hangover symptoms. But mixing these medications with alcohol can worsen other symptoms and, in some cases, be dangerous.

To ease the discomfort of a hangover, you should get plenty of rest, rehydrate with water, and abstain from alcohol.

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 are to develop a hangover. It’s also important to make sure you eat while drinking, drink a glass of water between each alcoholic beverage, and choose alcohol that is less likely to trigger hangover symptoms.

Experiencing hangovers after drinking a few times in your life is enough for most people to abstain from consuming excess alcohol. But if you notice you are experiencing hangover symptoms frequently or you develop a hangover every time you drink alcohol, it could indicate a problem with alcohol. It’s best to speak to your doctor so you can determine what’s causing your hangover symptoms.

Seek help when regular hangovers are starting to affect the quality of your life. Heavy drinking can lead to alcohol withdrawal, with undesirable, sometimes life-threatening symptoms. Help is available if you, or a loved one, needs it.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
  • Support Groups Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach, however there are secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.

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Resources

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Hangovers,” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 25 Apr. 2019.

Alcohol Poisoning - What to Do,” Utexas.Edu, 2020.

Hangovers - Diagnosis and Treatment - Mayo Clinic,” Mayoclinic.Org, 2017.

"The Science of Hangovers," Cedars Sinai, 11 Sept 2018.

"Getting the Handle on Hangovers," Griffith University, 3 Dec 2020.

Eriksson, C J Peter et al. "L-Cysteine Containing Vitamin Supplement Which Prevents or Alleviates Alcohol-related Hangover Symptoms: Nausea, Headache, Stress and Anxiety," Alcohol and Alcoholism, vol 55, Issue 6, November 2020, pp 660–666. https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agaa082

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