Hangover: Signs, Symptoms and How to Cure It?

Last Updated: April 9, 2020

What is a hangover? This condition can be seen on television and in movies. Some alcohol users have experienced hangover symptoms ourselves. That splitting hangover headache. The feeling that the user is about to vomit, the sense of seeing everything spun around. Hangovers are awful.
So what exactly is a hangover?

What Is A Hangover And What Does It Feel Like?

woman hangover on a blue background bottle of alcohol morning

According to the National Institutes of Health, a hangover is a cluster of unpleasant symptoms that manifest after a person has consumed an excessive amount of alcohol. Exact symptoms of a hangover can vary, but the most common ones are presented below.

Symptoms Of A Hangover

Hangover symptoms vary from person to person, but the following are the most common ones:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fatigue and weakness even after sleep
  • Nausea
  • Stomach ache
  • Increased thirst and dry mouth
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Shakiness and tremors
  • Increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Anxiety panic attacks
  • Decreased cognitive and visual-spatial skills
  • Trouble concentrating on the task at hand

Not everybody manifests all of the above symptoms. Which symptoms a person will experience and how intense these symptoms will depend on how many drinks the person had.

Complications Of A Hangover

In addition to feeling terrible and unable to do anything except to sit there moaning how to get rid of a hangover headache and how to cure hangover nausea being hungover can affect the life in more destructive ways. For example, the symptoms mentioned above can also give rise to the following complications:

  • Absenteeism from work: Severe hangover symptoms may render someone unable to go to work.
  • Reduced productivity: Decreased cognitive skills may reduce productivity at work.
  • Conflicts with co-workers and/or family members: Mood disturbances can make a person with hangover less tolerant of people and more prone to arguments. This can lead to conflicts at home or in the workplace.
  • Increased risk of injuries: Grogginess, sleepiness, and decreased visual-spatial skills may increase the risk of injuries, especially if one chooses to drive to work, operate heavy machinery, or move around unassisted.

Can A Hangover Be Fatal, Or Does It Just Feel That Way?

Alcohol is toxic to the body. The symptoms of a hangover show up when the alcohol level in the blood has diminished significantly or is almost nil. So for good reasons, some authorities regard a hangover as to the first stage of alcohol withdrawal.
The most severe symptoms of a hangover may indicate alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency and can be fatal. CALL 911 a loved one is experiencing the following symptoms after a bout of excessive drinking:

  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing – less than eight breaths per minute
  • Irregular breathing – an interval of more than 10 seconds between successive breaths
  • Low body temperature
  • Bluish or pale skin
  • Loss of consciousness

What Are The Causes Of A Hangover?

sick woman on bed concept of stomachache, menstrual cramp, headache, hangover

Alcohol can cause dehydration due to its diuretic properties. After drinking liquor, fluid in the body is processed more quickly than usual through urinating and vomiting. This also triggers other symptoms of a hangover like lightheadedness and increased thirst. Drinking plenty of water during and after alcohol consumption can help avoid dehydration. Other hangover causes include:

  • Inflammatory responses from the immune system
  • Low blood sugar
  • Stomach irritation
  • Blood vessel expansion
  • Chemicals produced by alcohol metabolism
  • Congeners (compounds used as color and flavor enhancers for liquors)

About 75 percent of all who drink an excessive amount of alcohol to the point of being intoxicated experience hangovers. Alcohol works on the body in the following ways to produce the classic symptoms of a hangover:

  • Alcohol dehydrates the body. Alcohol has diuretic properties. It makes fluids pass out of the body more rapidly. That’s why someone who has drunk too much urinates a lot. This dehydrates the body, and the resulting dehydration triggers many of the symptoms of a hangover, like lightheadedness, increased thirst, and dry mouth.
  • Alcohol produces inflammatory responses from the immune system. Because alcohol is toxic to the body, over-consumption of it causes the immune system to react in shock.
  • Alcohol reduces blood sugar levels. Low blood sugar levels produce symptoms like shakiness, tremors, fatigue and weakness, mood disturbances, and seizures.
  • Alcohol irritates the stomach. Alcohol increases the production of stomach acid that irritates the walls and slows down the excretion process. This can cause stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
  • Alcohol makes blood vessels expand. This – plus low blood sugar – is often the answer to “What causes a hangover headache?
  • Alcohol metabolism produces chemicals that trigger unpleasant side effects. Acetaldehyde, a metabolite of alcohol processing in the body, provides many of the symptoms of a hangover.
  • Alcohol contains congeners that cause and/or intensify hangover symptoms. Congeners are chemicals added during the processing and maturation of alcohol to produce color and flavor. These chemicals increase the intensity of hangover symptoms.

Although the amount of alcohol consumed determines the intensity of the symptoms, there are other risk factors:

  • Drinking more than the body can tolerate: This is a no-brainer. This is why some people get a hangover after having one drink while others, especially chronic users with high tolerance levels, do not get hangovers at all.
  • Having low body weight and a small body mass: Muscle and fat tissues absorb alcohol and prevent blood-alcohol levels from rising too rapidly. Those who have low body weight and little body mass get intoxicated more quickly than a thickly-built person. Small men and women usually have more intense hangover symptoms.
  • Drinking on an empty stomach: Food in the abdomen prevents blood-alcohol levels from rising sharply.
  • Drinking dark-colored liquors: Dark-colored liquors like brandy, whiskey, bourbon, scotch, tequila, red wine, and some beers contain large amounts of congeners.
  • Consuming other drugs with alcohol: Consuming alcohol with other drugs such as nicotine increases the severity of hangover symptoms.
  • Not getting enough sleep after drinking: Although alcohol makes one sleepy, the quality of sleep a person gets after a night of drinking is poor. Some researchers believe that disturbed sleep can make hangovers more frequent or intensify the symptoms.
  • Genetically, one may be more susceptible to hangovers: Yes, there is such a thing as a “hangover gene!” According to a Fox News report, the presence of this gene increases tolerance to alcohol, which means that the person has to drink more to show the effects of alcohol. So, the “hangover gene” does not literally cause hangovers, but the presence of this gene can make one less susceptible to hangovers.

How To Cure Or Manage A Hangover?

Unhealthy sick woman suffers from insomnia or headache, takes a pill

How to get over a hangover? The best way to manage a hangover is to sleep it off.
How to get rid of a hangover headache? Take over-the-counter analgesics like paracetamol, which are useful in managing the headaches and muscle pain caused by a hangover. However, never take any prescription medications which are not prescribed directly to manage alcohol hangover.
How long does a hangover last? Usually, the symptoms of a hangover subside on their own within 24 hours if any more alcohol haven’t been taken. However, one can do the following to relieve the symptoms and be more comfortable:

  • Stay hydrated. What is good for a hangover? Because dehydration triggers many of the symptoms of a hangover, drinking lots of water or some other bland liquid like soda water (one that does not stress the digestive system) will help to stay hydrated. Also drink fruit juice, electrolyte solutions (sports drinks), or bouillon soup. Besides filling up with fluids, these will also replenish the salt and potassium that alcohol makes to lose. A rehydration treatment sachet also helps.
  • Eat some snacks. Bland foods like toast and crackers and fruits like bananas and kiwis boost blood sugar levels and relieve symptoms like fatigue and tremors. Bananas and kiwis additionally provide a potassium boost to the body. But before eating, take an antacid to calm the stomach.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain medicine. There is no such thing as a hangover headache cure that works for everyone, but an over-the-counter pain medicine will help to manage headaches and muscle pain. What NOT to take for a hangover headache, however, includes aspirin because that irritates the lining of the stomach and magnifies symptoms like nausea and vomiting. Also avoid acetaminophen (Tylenol), because that can cause damage to the liver. A paracetamol-based remedy works best.
  • Retire to a quiet, dark room to rest or sleep. What is the best cure for a hangover? Sleep it off. Loud noises and bright lights tend to worsen headaches. Rest or go off to sleep again, and then wake up with refreshed feelings.

On the whole, however, the best answer to often-asked questions like “How to get rid of a hangover?” and “How to cure a hangover headache?” and “How to get rid of a hangover stomach ache?” is to modify the behavior, so that are less likely to get a hangover in the first place. In the next section, we offer some suggestions for how to do this.

How To Prevent Hangovers?

group of people drinking beer

How to prevent a hangover after drinking? The most effective way to avoid a hangover is not to drink at all. However, if  one chooses to drink, keep in mind the following useful tips to avoid a horrendous hangover:

  • Drink to safe limits. How to get rid of a hangover headache? Don’t drink so much. The more drinks taken previously, the greater the chances of having a hangover with intense symptoms. The safe limit is not more than two drinks a day for men and not more than one drink a day for women. Try not to get into “drinking rounds” to make sure one can control how much was drank.
  • Drink, keeping in mind the tolerance level. Tolerance to alcohol differs across individuals. Do not drink more than one can tolerate, or stop immediately when the feeling of intoxication is setting in.
  • Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Food in the stomach slows down the absorption of alcohol. It is a good idea to eat fats or carbohydrate-based foods like pasta or rice before one is going to drink.
  • Drink slowly. The quicker the user drinks, the more likely they will drink an excessive amount of alcohol. Drinking rapidly also increases the chance of an overdose that can cause alcohol poisoning.
  • Sip water or some other non-alcoholic, non-fizzy beverage in between alcoholic drinks. Sipping something non-alcoholic between drinks keeps hydrated and ensures not to drink more than the safe limit. However, stick to a non-fizzy or non-carbonated beverage that won’t speed up the absorption of alcohol by the system.
  • Avoid dark-colored drinks. The darker the color of the drink, the higher its congener content. Light-colored or clear drinks like gin, vodka, and white rum are low in congeners. However, remember that if one drinks too much, both dark-colored liquors and clear drinks will bring on a hangover.
  • Drink water before going to sleep. This will keep the body hydrated and prevent many of the symptoms of a hangover from occurring. Also, keep a glass of water nearby, so one can drink if woke up at night.

Generally, a hangover does not require a trip to the ER. But the symptoms are very unpleasant and may be inconvenient at times. Almost the definition of a hangover is that it’s a reminder that alcohol in excess amounts is bad for us. One can still enjoy the glass of red wine or an occasional beer but stay within safe limits. A hangover is preventable if drink safely and mindfully.

Page Sources

  1. Mackus M, van Schrojenstein Lantman M, Van de Loo AJAE, Kraneveld AD, Garssen J, Brookhuis KA, Verster JC. Alcohol metabolism in hangover sensitive versus hangover resistant social drinkers. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2018 Apr 1;185:351-355. https://www.clinicalkey.com/#!/content/playContent/1-s2.0-S0376871618300693
  2. van de Loo AJAE, van Schrojenstein Lantman M, Mackus M, Scholey A, Verster JC. Impact of mental resilience and perceived immune functioning on the severity of alcohol hangover. BMC Res Notes. 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6069540/
  3. Courtney KE, Worley M, Castro N, Tapert SF. The effects of alcohol hangover on future drinking behavior and the development of alcohol problems. Addict Behav. 2018 Mar;78:209-215. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5783770/

Published on: March 9th, 2018

Updated on: April 9th, 2020

About Author

Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette has been working in the health communications field since 1991, when she began working at the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Her initial campaigns focused on smoking cessation and cancer prevention. Juliette later moved to the corporate side of health communications, including working at Kaiser Permanente, where she designed interactive computer-based training for health education.


Leave a comment