Hangover symptoms are part and parcel of heavy drinking, and people who drink a lot are intimately familiar with the unpleasant phenomenon. Not a lot of people actually know what a hangover is though, and a lot of the folk wisdom about hangovers is just wrong. While the causes and symptoms of hangovers are fairly well understood, they can still be unpredictable. If you choose to drink, it can be helpful to know what causes a hangover, how to cure a hangover and when it’s time to seek help for your hangover symptoms.
What Are Typical Hangover Symptoms?
Everybody who drinks is at least somewhat familiar with the symptoms of a hangover, but it’s really different for everybody. Some people associate hangover symptoms primarily with a throbbing headache, but there are a lot of other symptoms. You may feel some, all or none of these, and they can show up no matter how much or how little you drink. Symptoms of hangovers can include:
- Weakness or fatigue
- Dry mouth and thirst
- Muscle aches
- Stomach pain, nausea or vomiting
- Insomnia or inadequate sleep
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Shakiness or tremors
- Lack of ability to concentrate
- Racing or rapid heartbeat
- Depression, anxiety and irritability
These hangover symptoms don’t all have the same causes, and some of them are signs of a serious health issue. While a hangover will typically go away within 24 hours of onset, you should not delay seeking medical attention if you feel you need it. Signs you may have a problem that goes beyond a hangover include:
- Excessive vomiting
- Depressed breathing (less than eight breaths a minute or gaps of 10 or more seconds between breaths)
- Blue skin
- Lowered body temperature
- Passing out or drowsiness that makes it hard to stay awake
If you’re with someone who shows these symptoms after drinking, especially after binge drinking, consider calling for medical help right away. They can be the signs of a serious physical reaction to alcohol.
What’s Happening During a Hangover?
Hangovers are still mysterious for a lot of people who drink. This is partly because hangovers are complicated, and a lot is going on internally. When you take a drink, the very small molecules of alcohol, also known as ethanol, pass easily though your mucous membranes and go directly into the bloodstream. There’s alcohol entering your blood from the moment it touches your lips and tongue. This is why you may feel the effects of your first drink even before you’ve finished swallowing it.
When ethanol gets into the blood, your liver secretes an enzyme called dehydrogenase (ADH) to break it down. During the long digestive process of turning ethanol into sugars your cells can use, the ADH produces a breakdown product called acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is extremely toxic, and its presence can trigger the body’s inflammatory response, as if you’ve been poisoned. This is part of the reason for the aches, pains and fatigue of common hangover symptoms. Acetaldehyde levels increase for hours after you’ve finished drinking, as your body processes out the ethanol. A hangover, however, is caused by more than just inflammation.
What Causes a Hangover?
Your body reacts to ethanol and acetaldehyde with a series of measures meant to keep you physically safe from what seems to your liver to be dangerous poison. The effects of these body changes cause many of the symptoms of hangovers.
Your body expels more urine when you’re drinking, which eventually causes dehydration. Lack of water can cause the dry mouth and thirst of a hangover.
Alcohol is a cell-toxic substance, which is why it’s often used to sterilize surfaces. Inside your stomach, it causes cells in the lining to die quickly and irritates the areas it’s in contact with. This is felt as nausea and pain in the abdomen until a new stomach lining can grow in a few hours.
Low Blood Sugar
As the alcohol metabolizes into sugar, your liver secretes insulin to process it further. After the sugars are all gone, you still have the insulin. This can cause rapid and dangerous drops in your blood sugar levels, which may result in fatigue, weakness and mood disturbances similar to alcohol intoxication, as well as a fruity odor on the breath.
Dilated Blood Vessels
Alcohol also causes your blood vessels to dilate. When this happens inside your skull, the pressure causes a severe headache called a migraine. This comes with sensitivity to light and sound, and often it causes nausea and visual disturbances called halos.
How to Cure a Hangover
If you have a normal hangover — one that doesn’t require medical attention to get over — time is the best cure there is. Hangover symptoms go away eventually, though they may linger for a day or so. Sip water or fruit juice to restore a healthy hydration balance and don’t drink any more alcohol for a while. Eat some bland food, such as crackers or toast, to stabilize your blood sugar. Anti-inflammatory pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, can help with the headache. Finally, get some rest and take a nap if it helps.
Ways to Prevent a Hangover
By far, the best hangover treatment is not to get one at all. While some people get a hangover after a single drink, most people can prevent a hangover by being careful while they’re drinking:
- Drink moderate amounts over a long time, rather than bingeing on hard liquor.
- Eat before consuming alcohol.
- Drink water between alcoholic beverages.
- Set a limit and don’t drink more than that.
Do You Get a Lot of Hangovers?
While an occasional hangover is the price of occasional drinking, some people seem to always have hangover symptoms to some extent. If you’re frequently dealing with the symptoms of a hangover, you may be drinking more than normal. If you or someone you care for has frequent hangovers and other signs of problematic drinking, it may be time to seek out help from compassionate professionals. Call today to speak with an intake worker at Sunlight Recovery, and start your journey to a life without hangovers today.