Hangovers

Symptoms and Treatment for Hangovers. We All Know the Cause, Right?

Hangover
There is no surefire cure for hangovers. (c) Digital Vision/Getty Images

Oh, the hangover! It's a common morning-after complaint that follows too much alcohol consumption. The medical term for a hangover is veisalgia, which is a combination of the Greek word for pain and a Norwegian word for "uneasiness following debauchery"—probably one of the most poetic definitions I've seen in medicine.

Despite the fact that almost anyone who's ever experienced a hangover can self-diagnose it, there is very little data available to define the symptoms or explain why they happen.

We all know that the hangover is caused by drinking too much alcohol. But we don't exactly know what the alcohol does to our systems to lead to the hangover. One thing we do know: It's complicated.

Hangover Symptoms

Researchers have identified two different types of hangover symptoms—those that seem to be common to most people and those that affect a chosen few. What we don't know is why some folks experience extra misery with their hangovers compared to the rest of us.

There isn't a universal way to diagnose a hangover, but my favorite has two parts. First, you have to drink enough to get drunk and let the alcohol metabolize. Usually, that means waiting until the next morning before you decide the hangover has officially begun. Second, you have to have more than one of the following symptoms:

  • Headache
  • Poor sense of overall well-being (most people define this as "feeling like crap")
  • Tenderness and pain in various body parts

If you woke this morning after knocking back a few shots last night, and now you've got a raging headache with an upset stomach, you can reasonably call that a hangover. Some folks get a little extra love from their imbibed spirits.

See if these sound familiar:

  • Brain fog (trouble thinking)
  • Dizziness (especially after standing up)
  • Clumsiness
  • Rapid pulse
  • Low blood pressure

Hangover Causes

There are a lot of theories why alcohol intoxication leads to hangovers. Some believe it is related to alcohol withdrawal, but symptoms of alcohol withdrawal don't match symptoms of hangovers. Alcohol is a diuretic (it makes you pee), which often leads to dehydration as the body urinates more fluid out than it takes in. Indeed, dehydration symptoms can look very similar to hangover symptoms.

Alcohol has been seen to cause changes in hormone levels. Furthermore, there's no magic amount of alcohol that makes hangovers worse. But one thing is for certain: To get a hangover, you have to get drunk first.

Hangover Treatment

There are few hangover treatments. And, I dare say, there's no such thing as a hangover cure. For now, the best thing for the morning after is a bit of food and a healthy dose of water or sports drinks to rehydrate. Some folks have their own favorite hangover "cures;" in most cases, they're just personal preferences.

There is one study that showed a significant decrease in hangover symptoms by taking vitamin B6 while drinking. I don't have too much faith in the idea, however. It seems to me that if you had enough wits about you to take a loading dose of vitamins (taken several times while drinking) you probably had enough control to limit your drinking in the first place.

The best treatment is to handle each symptom individually (aspirin or ibuprofen for headaches, anti-nausea medication for nausea, etc.).

Hangovers may seem like just deserts for partying too hard, but they can actually be dangerous, especially for folks with heart disease. Probably the most important thing is to recognize a hangover, since we don't really have a proper hangover cure yet. As more research is done, there will likely be new hangover treatments developed. Until then, the best cure is prevention.

In other words: Don't get drunk.

Sources:

Wiese JG, Shlipak MG, Browner WS. "The alcohol hangover." Ann Intern Med. 2000 Jun 6;132(11):897-902.

Verster JC, Penning R. "Treatment and prevention of alcohol hangover." Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2010 Jun;3(2):103-9.

Verster JC, et al; Alcohol Hangover Research Group. "The alcohol hangover research group consensus statement on best practice in alcohol hangover research." Curr Drug Abuse Rev. 2010 Jun;3(2):116-26.

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