A hangover is your body’s response to the breakdown products of alcohol. Symptoms of a hangover can include headache, dry mouth, nausea, fatigue, muscle aches, dizziness, and sensitivity to light. Typically, a hangover has no lingering health consequences. But it is a sign that you’ve had too much to drink.
Not everyone gets hangovers. The morning-after scenario depends not only on what and how much a person drinks but also his or her drinking history. Genetic makeup is a factor as well—some people process alcohol differently than others. For example, many Asian people are unable to break down acetaldehyde, a product of alcohol metabolism. This chemical causes many of the hangover symptoms. Psychological factors, including personality, are also involved. If a person expects to feel sick after drinking, he or she may be more likely to focus on symptoms.
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What causes a hangover?
One of the factors thought to contribute to a hangover is that alcohol acts as a diuretic: It stimulates the kidneys to pass more water than is being consumed, resulting in loss of electrolytes and dehydration. Alcohol also reduces blood sugar levels, which can produce fatigue. In addition, alcohol can widen or dilate blood vessels, leading to a headache, disrupted sleep, and many other effects.
Some alcoholic beverages are more likely to produce a bad hangover. Alcohol (ethanol) content in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of 80-proof spirits is the same, proving that alcohol is, for the most part, just alcohol. But some beverages, notably whiskey and brandy, also contain small amounts of methanol, which is broken down much more slowly by the body. And red wine contains other substances that may increase the severity of a hangover.
It takes the body about two hours to burn an ounce of pure alcohol, roughly the amount in one drink. Because alcohol is removed from the blood at this rate, even one drink per hour produces a steady increase in blood alcohol levels. Hence, people who are of average size don’t have to get very drunk to suffer a hangover.
What if you do nothing?
A hangover improves as time passes. In fact, time is the only truly effective remedy for a hangover. Usually hangover symptoms go away in eight to 24 hours.
Home remedies for hangovers
No sure-fire remedy for the hangover has ever been found. If there were a cure, some people might drink more, which would have devastating effects, so maybe that’s good. But these home remedies can help make you more comfortable while you ride out the symptoms:
- Pain relievers. NSAIDs—aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen—can help relieve a headache the morning after, as can acetaminophen. However, pain relievers should not be taken while you are drinking in an effort to prevent a hangover. Combining alcohol with aspirin or ibuprofen may lead to gastrointestinal bleeding, and alcohol combined with acetaminophen increases the risk of liver damage.
- Ice. Prepare an ice pack and apply it to the forehead, but for no more than 20 minutes at a stretch.
- Water, and plenty of it. Drinking water helps counter dehydration caused by alcohol. You can also drink fruit juices or eat fruit, which may reduce the intensity of a hangover.
- Coffee. It might help a little, though not a lot. Coffee and other stimulants won’t hasten the body’s process of eliminating alcohol or lessen the effects of a hangover.
They may, however, perk you up and help rehydrate you.
- Antacids. They may help relieve nausea or an upset stomach from a hangover.
In contrast, some hangover “remedies” can do more harm than good. We recommend avoiding both of these:
- Drinking more alcohol. This won’t help and in fact will only make things worse.
- IV drips. These are a hangover service offered in many cities today, but while they do rehydrate your body, they’re costly and there’s no evidence that they ease other symptoms of hangovers.
How to prevent a hangover
- Drink only small amounts of alcohol.
- Choose drinks with lower amounts of alcohol, such as a beer or wine, instead of hard liquor.
- Opt for white wine instead of red wine. Red wine contains substances called congeners that may contribute to hangovers.
- Eat food—particularly fatty food—while or before drinking. This can slow your body’s absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. But no matter what you eat with your drinks, don’t drive.
Remember: If you find yourself looking for a preventive or remedy for hangovers, you’re probably drinking too much.
When to call your doctor
For an ordinary hangover, you should have no reason to contact a doctor. However, habitual hangovers are one of the signs of alcohol dependence, and treatment for this requires medical help.
A word of caution about the day after drinking
Everyone knows that a person’s judgment and performance are impaired when under the influence of alcohol—but they are also impaired the next day, whether you feel fine or not. One should not drive or operate heavy equipment the next day after overindulging.