What Is a Hangover?

Symptoms, Causes, Cures, and Prevention for Hangover

Woman with hangover and coffee
Water Is Better for a Hangover. © Getty Images

The alarm goes off in the morning, and it feels as if someone is hitting your head with a hammer. Your head is pounding, your body is aching, your mouth is dry, and you are thirsty. You lift your head, you are dizzy and nauseated. The room seems as if it is spinning. You put one foot on the floor to make it stop. It doesn't. You then remember you drank a lot the night before. You have a hangover.

What Is a Hangover?

The term "hangover" refers to a constellation of unpleasant and painful symptoms that can develop after drinking too much alcohol.

Those symptoms can range from mild discomfort to more severe symptoms.

There is no magic number as to how much alcohol will cause a hangover since each individual reacts to alcohol differently, but generally, the more you drink, the more severe the hangover symptoms.

The Symptoms of a Hangover

Most of the unpleasant symptoms experienced during a hangover are caused by two things: alcohol causes dehydration and alcohol's toxins are poisoning systems within the body.

Excessive amounts of alcohol can affect the liver, the brain, the gastrointestinal system, the central nervous system, and sensory perception. It can disrupt your sleep and other body rhythms, affect your mood, and affect your attention and concentration.

The Causes of a Hangover

Most of the symptoms experienced during a hangover are caused by the direct effect of alcohol on the body's systems, but there are other factors that can add to the unpleasantness of a hangover that are not directly caused by the alcohol consumed.

Hangover symptoms can also be caused by the withdrawal of alcohol from the body, the effects of metabolites produced when alcohol is consumed, other chemicals found in alcoholic beverages, behaviors associated with drinking, and personal characteristics of the person.

The Cure for Hangovers

There are many traditional practices that are thought to alleviate hangover symptoms, but some of them are unfounded myths that really do not help much at all.

There are some practices that can actually make matters worse.

Left alone, hangover symptoms will go away on their own within eight to 24 hours, but when your head is pounding and the room is spinning, any treatment or hangover "cure" that can bring any relief can sound like a good idea.

Preventing a Hangover

The best cure for a hangover is to never get one in the first place. People who drink nonalcoholic beverages do not get hangovers, and generally speaking, those who drink moderate amounts— one drink a day for women and no more than two a day for men— do not experience hangover symptoms.

If you drink any alcohol at all, you can experience negative consequences the next morning. Although there is no sure way to prevent a hangover or eliminate all of the unpleasantness of a hangover, there are steps that you can take to reduce the severity of the symptoms.

The Hangover as a Deterrent

For many people who experience a particularly severe hangover, it can be the motivation to never drink excessively again. Someone may have a very bad experience after drinking too much and they simply make a decision to quit drinking and they never drink again.

Others may continue to drink despite repeated bouts with severe hangover symptoms.

Continuing to drink despite negative consequences can be sign of alcoholism, alcohol dependence, or alcohol abuse. People who drink heavily who have sworn to themselves "never again" during a hangover, but return to drinking a short time later, by definition can have a drinking problem.

For those who do stop drinking, some may experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Test yourself. There is a quick 10-question alcohol withdrawal symptom self quiz to see if you might have mild, moderate, severe, or no symptoms.

Sources:

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol Hangover - Mechanisms and Mediators (PDF)." 14 Jan. 2002.

Penning, R. et. al "Alcohol hangover symptoms and their contribution to the overall hangover severity." Alcohol and Alcoholism June 2012

Penning, R. et al "The pathology of alcohol hangover." Current Drug Abuse Reviews June 2010

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