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What is an Alcohol Hangover?

The term “hangover” describes a variety of symptoms that occur after someone drinks too much alcohol. Any amount of alcohol affects your body, but when you drink enough to feel “buzzed” or “drunk,” you’re likely to experience a hangover as your body eliminates the alcohol from your system.

There’s no exact amount of alcohol a person must drink to feel hungover. Some people feel less than their best after just a drink or two, while others must consume a significant amount of alcohol to experience a hangover.

Hangover symptoms are unpleasant, but they are rarely dangerous. They usually wear off on their own within approximately 24 hours after your last drink. 

Causes & Symptoms of a Hangover 

Hangovers occur when you drink too much alcohol and then stop. The sudden drop in your blood alcohol content triggers hangover symptoms.

Most people can expect to experience hangover symptoms if they drink enough to:

  • Urinate more frequently, leading to dehydration
  • Trigger inflammation in your immune system
  • Increase stomach acid, irritating your stomach lining and delaying the emptying of your stomach
  • Decrease your blood sugar
  • Expand your blood vessels
  • Disrupt your sleep

Many types of alcohol get their flavor from congeners. Congeners occur in higher amounts in dark liquors, such as bourbon and brandy. This is why many people tend to experience worse hangovers when they drink dark liquors, as opposed to gin and vodka.

You can experience a hangover with any type of alcohol, but congeners tend to produce hangovers with the most intense symptoms. Common hangover symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Excessive thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Headache
  • Muscle soreness
  • Nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain
  • Poor sleep
  • Increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • Dizziness or a sensation of the room spinning
  • Shakiness
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Mood disturbances, including depression, anxiety, and irritability
  • Rapid heartbeat

Is it Possible to Prevent a Hangover?

Yes, but the only sure-fire way to not experience hangover symptoms is to consume no more than a moderate amount of alcohol. 

The best way to prevent a hangover is to not drink or to consume only a very small amount of alcohol. For most healthy people, moderate alcohol consumption is approximately one or two drinks per day.

Products advertised as offering hangover prevention rarely work. 

If you intend to drink more than just one or two drinks, there are a few things you can do to reduce the intensity of hangover symptoms. 

For example, some people take over-the-counter pain medications to reduce their hangover headache. It’s important to speak to your doctor before mixing alcohol and OTC pain relief because the combination puts some people at risk of liver damage.

Additionally, eating, drinking plenty of water to rehydrate your body, and avoiding certain types of alcohol tend to reduce the severity of hangover symptoms.

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6 Ways to Prevent a Hangover Before, During & After Drinking Alcohol 

Here are six ways to help prevent a hangover: 

  1. Eat before and while drinking: Food slows down the body’s alcohol absorption, reducing the release of acetaldehyde (the primary cause of a hangover) in the stomach. Drinking on an empty stomach makes everything worse. The more food you consume before drinking, the more it will take for the alcohol to enter the bloodstream.1
  2. “Hair of the Dog”: Consuming a small amount of alcohol when you have a hangover wards off withdrawal symptoms. However, using this approach frequently can create a dangerous cycle.2
  3. Choose your alcoholic beverages carefully: Avoid alcohols with higher congeners and opt for clear or light-colored types of alcohol like vodka, gin, and white wines.3
  4. Alternate drinks with a glass of water: This keeps you hydrated and reduces alcohol consumption.4
  5. Know your personal limits when it comes to alcohol: Most people don’t experience hangover symptoms after just a drink or two, but this varies from person to person. Understanding what you can handle helps you avoid over-imbibing.
  6. Avoid a mix of alcohol: Once you begin drinking rum, don’t switch to wine or whiskey, and so on. Alcoholic drinks that contain a mix of alcohols also tend to make hangovers worse. 

What Can You Eat to Prevent a Hangover?

Eating before drinking alcohol and/or while you’re drinking is one of the best ways to reduce the severity of hangover symptoms. What you eat before drinking can further improve how you feel after consuming too much alcohol.

Here are the best foods to eat to reduce the severity of a hangover:

  • Avocado
  • Olive Oil
  • Whole milk
  • Nuts
  • Salmon
  • Chicken breast
  • Pasta
  • Hummus
  • Whole-grain bread
  • Spinach
  • Pickles
  • Asparagus
  • Cauliflower
  • “Bland” foods, including rice, bananas, toast, and applesauce 5

Many people find that a combination of these foods works best for helping them with hangover symptoms. For example, a meal of spaghetti with olive oil, chicken, and asparagus or two slices of whole grain toast with avocado, thinly sliced salmon, and fresh spinach would both provide a variety of hangover-reducing effects.

What Alcohol Causes the Worst Hangover?

Drinking large amounts of any type of alcohol can trigger hangover symptoms. The higher your blood alcohol, no matter if it’s from beer, wine, or hard liquor, the worse your hangover symptoms. 

That said, alcohol with higher levels of congeners tends to cause the worst hangovers.

Congeners are a byproduct of fermentation. They are found in dark liquor, including:

  • Whiskey
  • Brandy
  • Red wines
  • Rum

Additionally, cheaper versions of these liquors have higher amounts of congeners. 

Additionally, the more sugar you consume while drinking alcohol, the greater likelihood of an intense hangover. Sugary cocktails tend to use a combination of different alcohols and/or mask the taste of alcohol, so it’s easier to drink more without realizing it.

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What Alcohol is the Least Likely to Give You a Hangover?

Alcohol with fewer congeners tends to produce less intense hangover symptoms. This includes:

  • White wines
  • Vodka
  • Gin

How to Reduce Hangover Symptoms in the Morning

Once you’ve consumed too much alcohol, there’s not much you can do to prevent a hangover. The best way to avoid a hangover or minimize hangover symptoms is to avoid developing one in the first place.

However, there are some things you can do to ease the symptoms and speed your recovery.6

For example:

  • Consume fluids: Alcohol dehydrates the body by promoting excessive urination. Additionally, some people experience vomiting, sweating, and diarrhea when drinking too much, further exacerbating dehydration. Rehydrating the body with water, a sports drink, or Pedialyte with electrolytes reduces some of the most severe hangover symptoms.
  • Eat carbohydrates: Alcohol causes a dip in blood sugar levels, leading to headaches and fatigue. Eating carbs nudges blood sugar levels back to normal. Bland carbohydrates (including toast, rice, or crackers) tend to ease nausea too.
  • Take an OTC pain reliever, but avoid Tylenol: Aspirin, ibuprofen, and other NSAIDs help with hangover-induced aches and pains. There is a risk of stomach irritation with these medications, but unlike with acetaminophen (Tylenol), there’s no significant risk of liver damage.
  • Sleep it off: Many people find that sleeping during the hours they feel hungover helps them avoid the problem, but also helps with lingering fatigue.
  • Use antacids: You can ward off stomach upset with simple over-the-counter antacids.
  • Be patient: Hangovers usually don’t last long. You should feel a little better with each passing hour as your body clears the byproducts of alcohol.

Is Your Drinking a Sign of an Alcohol Problem?

Experiencing a hangover every so often is probably not a sign that you have a drinking problem. 

But if hangovers are frequent, or you have other signs that indicate a problem with alcohol, you might want to consider cutting back or speaking to someone about your alcohol consumption.

To receive a diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD), someone must meet two of the following criteria within the last 12-months:

  • Inability to reduce or stop alcohol consumption even if they want to
  • Investing a great deal of time obtaining, using, and recovering from alcohol use
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol
  • Needing to drink more or more frequently to achieve the same effect
  • Drinking more than intended
  • Developing symptoms of withdrawal when not drinking
  • Avoiding previously enjoyed activities in favor of drinking
  • Neglecting personal and professional responsibilities because of alcohol use
  • Continuing to use alcohol despite its negative social and interpersonal problems
  • Using alcohol in high-risk situations
  • Continuing to drink excessively despite physical and psychological problems caused by alcohol

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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(1)  “Hangovers - Symptoms and Causes.” Mayo Clinic, 2017.

(2) Harvard Health Publishing. “7 Steps to Cure Your Hangover.” Harvard Health.

(3) “Hangovers | Office of Alcohol Policy and Education.” Alcohol.stanford.edu.

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

(5) “What Should You Eat When You’re Hungover?” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, 10 Dec. 2020.

(6) “Hangover: Symptoms, Remedies, Cure, Prevention.” Cleveland Clinic.

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