What is a hangover? We have all seen it on television and in movies. Some of us have experienced hangover symptoms ourselves. That splitting hangover 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.
As an example, “Tracy” couldn’t agree more. After a night of partying with friends and drinking till the wee hours, she has awakened with all of these symptoms. Suddenly the “good times” she remembers hazily from last night don’t feel like they were such a good idea. She is wondering what has come over her. She is debating whether she can even drive to work today. She is looking up “How to cure a hangover” and “How to get rid of a hangover headache?” on the Internet and is worried the symptoms will get worse.
So what exactly is a hangover? Let’s fill Tracy in 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?
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
- Headaches – the most commonly-reported symptom is a hangover headache
- Muscle cramps
- Fatigue and weakness, even after you feel you have had your usual quota of sleep
- 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
- Absenteeism from work: Severe 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. “Tracy made it to work, but was so dull she couldn’t perform her duties, and all of her supervisors and co-workers noticed.”
- 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. “Tracy’s co-workers were talking quietly among themselves and she screamed at them for yelling!”
- 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. “Tracy was supposed to drive some co-workers, but they were afraid to ride with her!”
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 a hangover is regarded by some authorities as the first stage of alcohol withdrawal.
- Mental confusion
- Slow breathing – less than 8 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?
- 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 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, 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.
- 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 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 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 such as 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 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 you less susceptible to hangovers.
How To Cure Or Manage A Hangover
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 effective in managing the headaches and muscle pain caused by a hangover.
- 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 your digestive system) 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 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 you eat, you may need to take an antacid to calm your 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 you 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 you will wake up feeling refreshed.
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 your behavior so that you 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
- Drink to safe limits. How to get rid of a hangover headache? Duh…don’t drink so much. The more you drink, the greater your chance 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 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 fats or carbohydrate-based foods like pasta or rice 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 alcoholic drinks. Sipping something non-alcoholic 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 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. Almost the definition of a hangover is that it’s 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.