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Alcohol Hangover

Hangover Symptoms


Man sitting with head in hands at table.
Betsie Van der Meer/ Stone/ Getty Images
Alcohol can have various biological and behavioral effects on the body. People who consume alcohol to intoxication often experience what is known as a hangover. Hangovers result in unpleasant physical and mental symptoms including fatigue, headache, dizziness, and vertigo. While there are some suggested treatments to curb the effects of hangover, the best way to prevent a hangover from occurring is not to consume alcohol. Since the effects of most hangovers subside after 8 to 24 hours, time is the most effective remedy for alcohol hangover symptoms.

Alcohol Hangover

Hangovers are a frequent, though unpleasant, experience among people who drink to intoxication. Despite the prevalence of hangovers, however, this condition is not well understood scientifically. Multiple possible contributors to the hangover state have been investigated, and researchers have produced evidence that alcohol can directly promote hangover symptoms through its effects on urine production, the gastrointestinal tract, blood sugar concentrations, sleep patterns, and biological rhythms. In addition, researchers postulate that effects related to alcohol's absence after a drinking bout (i.e., withdrawal), alcohol metabolism, and other factors (e.g., biologically active, nonalcohol compounds in beverages; the use of other drugs; certain personality traits; and a family history of alcoholism) also may contribute to the hangover condition. Few of the treatments commonly described for hangover have undergone scientific evaluation.

What is a Hangover?

A hangover is characterized by the constellation of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms that occur after a bout of heavy alcohol drinking. Physical symptoms of a hangover include fatigue, headache, increased sensitivity to light and sound, redness of the eyes, muscle aches, and thirst. Signs of increased sympathetic nervous system activity can accompany a hangover, including increased systolic blood pressure, rapid heartbeat (i.e., tachycardia), tremor, and sweating. Mental symptoms include dizziness; a sense of the room spinning (i.e., vertigo); and possible cognitive and mood disturbances, especially depression, anxiety, and irritability.

Alcohol Hangover Symptoms
  • Constitutional: fatigue, weakness, and thirst

  • Pain: headache and muscle aches

  • Gastrointestinal: nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain

  • Sleep and biological rhythms: decreased sleep, decreased REM(rapid eye movements), and increased slow-wave sleep

  • Sensory: vertigo and sensitivity to light and sound

  • Cognitive: decreased attention and concentration

  • Mood: depression, anxiety, and irritability

  • Sympathetic hyperactivity: tremor, sweating, and increased pulse and systolic blood pressure
The particular set of symptoms experienced and their intensity may vary from person to person and from occasion to occasion. In addition, hangover characteristics may depend on the type of alcoholic beverage consumed and the amount a person drinks. Typically, a hangover begins within several hours after the cessation of drinking, when a person's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is falling. Symptoms usually peak about the time BAC is zero and may continue for up to 24 hours thereafter. Overlap exists between hangover and the symptoms of mild alcohol withdrawal (AW), leading to the assertion that hangover is a manifestation of mild withdrawal. Hangovers, however, may occur after a single bout of drinking, whereas withdrawal occurs usually after multiple, repeated bouts. Other differences between hangover and AW include a shorter period of impairment (i.e., hours for hangover versus several days for withdrawal) and a lack of hallucinations and seizures in hangover. People experiencing a hangover feel ill and impaired. Although a hangover may impair task performance and thereby increase the risk of injury, equivocal data exist on whether hangover actually impairs complex mental tasks.

NEXT > Alcohol Effects > Alcohol Remedies

*Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA); Alcohol Withdrawal Volume 22, Number 1, 1998 Alcohol Hangover: Mechanisms and Mediators; Robert Swift and Dena Davidson
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