We have all seen it on television and in movies. Some of us have experienced it as well. That splitting headache. The feeling that you are about to vomit out the entire contents of your stomach. That horrifying feeling of seeing everything spin around you. Hangovers are awful. Tracy can’t agree more.
After a night of partying with friends and drinking till the wee hours, she has woken up with all these symptoms. Suddenly the “good times” don’t feel like they were a good idea. She is wondering what has come over her. She is debating if she can drive to work today. She is worried if the symptoms will worsen.
So what is a hangover? Let’s fill in Tracy on the details, so she can be more careful the next time she decides to party with her friends.
What is a Hangover and What Does It Feel Like?
The symptoms of a hangover vary from person to person, but the following are the most common ones:
- Fatigue and weakness even after you feel you have had your usual quota of beauty sleep
- Headaches and muscle cramps
- Stomach ache
- Increased thirst and dry mouth
- Dizziness and light-headedness
- Shakiness and tremors
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound
- Rapid heartbeat
- Anxiety, irritability, and/or depression
- Decreased cognitive and visual-spatial skills
- Trouble concentrating on the task at hand
Not everybody manifests all of the above symptoms. What symptoms a person will experience and their intensity depends on how many drinks he or she has had.
The above-mentioned symptoms can also give rise to the following complications:
- Absenteeism from work: The severity of hangover symptoms may render you unable to go to work. Tracy was too sick to even get up from bed!
- Reduced productivity: Decreased cognitive skills may reduce productivity at work.
- Conflicts with co-workers and/or family members: Mood disturbances may make you less tolerant of people and more prone to arguments. This can lead to conflicts at home or the workplace.
- Increased risk of injuries: Grogginess, sleepiness, and decreased visual-spatial skills may increase the risk of injuries, especially if you choose to drive to work, operate heavy machinery, or move around unassisted.
Can it be Fatal?
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 a hangover is regarded by some as the first stage of alcohol withdrawal.
The severe symptoms of a hangover may indicate alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is a medical emergency and can be fatal. CALL 911 if you notice a loved one experiencing the following symptoms after a bout of excessive drinking:
- Mental confusion
- Slow breathing, which is less than 8 breaths per minute
- Irregular breathing, which is 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?
Does alcohol cause dehydration?
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 hangover like lightheadedness and increased thirst. Drinking plenty of water during and after alcohol consumption can help avoid dehydration.
The causes are:
- Inflammatory responses from the immune system
- Low blood sugar
- Stomach irritation
- Blood vessel expansion
- Chemicals produced by alcohol metabolism
- Congeners (chemicals used as color and flavor enhancers for liquors)
About 75 percent of all who drink an excess 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 your body rapidly. That’s why, someone who has drank too much urinates a lot. This dehydrates the body. 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 it is toxic to the body, alcohol consumption produces inflammatory responses from the immune system.
- 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. These can cause stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting.
- Alcohol makes blood vessels expand. This can produce symptoms like headaches.
- Alcohol metabolism produces chemicals that trigger unpleasant side effects. Acetaldehyde, a metabolite of alcohol processing in the body, produces 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 some 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 low body mass: Muscle and fat tissues absorb alcohol and prevent blood-alcohol levels from rising too rapidly. Those who have low body weight and low body mass get intoxicated quickly than a thickly-built person. Small persons and women usually have more intense hangover symptoms.
- Drinking on an empty stomach: Food in the stomach 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 like nicotine increases the severity of hangover symptoms.
- Not getting enough sleep after drinking: Although alcohol makes you sleepy, the quality of sleep you get after a night of drinking is poor. Some researchers believe that disturbed sleep can make hangovers more frequent or intensify the symptoms.
- Genetically, you may be more susceptible to hangovers: Yes, there is 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 you less susceptible to hangovers.
How to Cure or Manage a Hangover
Over the counter medicines like paracetamol are effective in managing headaches and muscle pain caused by a hangover. Aspirin should be avoided, since it will irritate the stomach lining and may only trigger nausea and vomiting. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) also should not be taken, since liver damage can occur as a side effect to the drug’s use.
The best way to manage a hangover is to sleep it off. Usually, the symptoms of a hangover subside on their own within 24 hours, provided you don’t drink any more alcohol. However, you can do the following to relieve the symptoms and be comfortable:
Because dehydration triggers many of the symptoms of a hangover, drinking lots of water or some other bland liquid—one that does not stress your digestive system—like soda water will help you stay hydrated. You can also drink fruit juice, electrolyte solutions (sports drinks), or bouillon soup. Besides filling you up with fluids, these will also replenish the salt and potassium that alcohol makes you lose. A rehydration treatment sachet also helps.
Eat some snack
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 you eat, you may need to take an antacid to calm your stomach.
Take an over-the-counter pain medicine
An over-the-counter pain medicine will help you manage headaches and muscle pain. However, don’t take aspirin that irritates the lining of the stomach and magnifies symptoms like nausea and vomiting or acetaminophen (Tylenol) that may cause damage to the liver. A paracetamol-based remedy works best.
Retire to a quiet, dark room to rest or sleep
Loud noises and bright lights tend to worsen headaches. Rest or go off to sleep again, and you will wake up feeling refreshed.
How to Prevent a Hangover
The most effective way to prevent a hangover is not to drink at all. However, if you choose to drink, keep in mind the following pointers to prevent a horrendous hangover:
- Drink to safe limits. The more you drink, the more are your 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 rounds to make sure you control how much you drink.
- Drink keeping in mind your tolerance level. Tolerance to alcohol differs across individuals. Do not drink more than what you can tolerate, or stop immediately when you feel intoxication 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 carbohydrate-based foods like pasta or rice, or fats before you drink.
- Drink slowly. The quicker you drink, the more likely you are to drink an excess 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 alcohol. Sipping water or another non-alcoholic beverage in between drinks keeps you hydrated and ensures that you do not 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 your system.
- Avoid dark-colored drinks. The darker the color of the drink, the higher is its congener content. Light-colored or clear drinks like gin, vodka, and white rum are low in congeners. However, remember that if you drink too much, both dark-colored liquors and clear drinks will bring on a hangover.
- Drink water before you go to sleep. This will keep you hydrated and prevent many of the symptoms of a hangover from occurring. Also keep a glass of water nearby, so you can drink if you wake 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. A hangover is a reminder that alcohol in excess amounts is bad for us. You can still enjoy your glass of red wine or an occasional beer, but stay within safe limits. A hangover is preventable if you drink safely and mindfully.