What is a Hangover and Can It Be Cured?

hungover woman in bed next to alcohol

The Bottom Line

Hangovers are unpleasant symptoms that occur after consumption of alcohol. Even though many products are marketed as hangover treatments, there is no cure for this condition. The best way to prevent a hangover is to avoid drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

hungover men sleeping in their living room

The Full Story

Have you ever felt nauseated or had a headache the day after drinking a few glasses of beer, wine, or liquor? If so, it’s likely that your symptoms were due to an alcohol hangover. There is no precise definition of hangover, and the condition is best described as the presence of unpleasant signs or symptoms that occur hours after the consumption of alcohol. There are numerous signs and symptoms associated with alcohol hangovers, including fatigue, headache and nausea. Some people may also experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, heart palpitations, dizziness, vertigo, or sensitivity to light and sound. Because these signs and symptoms interfere with one’s ability to function normally, hangovers are a significant cause of decreased productivity at home and at work. Frequent episodes of alcohol hangover are associated with depression and increased risk of death.

Hangovers can have multiple effects on the human body. Since alcohol causes our bodies to lose fluids through increased urine output, many hangovers are associated with dehydration. Alcohol also causes irritation of the gastrointestinal tract, resulting in abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Alcohol consumption can affect our sleep quality. Even though many people fall asleep after drinking alcohol, the sleep quality is frequently poor after alcohol consumption. Since many people are tired the day after drinking alcohol due to poor-quality sleep, fatigue may also affect the severity, and duration of hangover symptoms. 

Some people think that the type of alcohol can contribute to hangovers. Congeners, which are compounds produced during the processing or fermentation of alcohol, contribute to the taste, smell, and color of alcoholic beverages. Congeners are present in higher amounts in darker-colored liquors (such as whiskey or brandy) than in lighter-colored liquors (such as gin or vodka). Some research suggests that the presence of congeners in alcohol may contribute to hangovers, and for this reason some scientists believe that gin and vodka cause fewer hangovers than whiskey or brandy. However, it is important to know that any type of alcohol can cause a hangover if consumed in a large enough amount.

The true cause of hangovers is unknown. Since a hangover tends to occur after drinking, when an individual’s blood alcohol content is decreasing or even zero, the breakdown products of alcohol may play a role in the development of hangover. When alcohol is metabolized in our bodies, it forms a chemical called acetaldehyde. Some researchers think that acetaldehyde may contribute to the development of hangovers. Since some people seem to be more prone to hangovers than others, there may be a genetic role in the development of hangover. Some people experience a “flushing response” after consuming alcohol. This is characterized by facial flushing, a rapid heart rate, and sleepiness, and is thought to occur secondary to a genetic alteration that causes acetaldehyde to build up in the body. Certain populations, such as East Asians, are more likely to have this genetic variant, and thus may be more likely to experience hangovers after drinking alcohol. Other individual factors, such as certain personality traits and a family history of alcoholism, may impact one’s risk for hangover development, although the reasons for this are unclear. 

Since the exact cause of hangover is unknown, there is no cure for this condition. Myths such as “hair of the dog” and “beer before liquor” are unproven methods of reducing the incidence or severity of hangovers. Drinking coffee, taking showers, and taking painkillers before drinking are also not proven to be effective in preventing or treating hangovers. Many dietary supplements are marketed as treatments for hangover, including vitamin B1, vitamin B6, milk thistle extract, and N-acetylcysteine. These products are often sold online, and may also be dispensed from mobile hangover clinics or buses in some states. Because same-day home delivery is an enticing option for people who are experiencing hangover symptoms and feel too ill to drive to a hospital or pharmacy, these products have surged in popularity recently. Unfortunately, some of these hangover treatments may actually contain excessively high levels of vitamins or other ingredients and can be potentially poisonous because of this. Additionally, there is little evidence to support the effectiveness or safety of these products in treating hangover. In 2020, the United States Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to several companies for selling unapproved products for the treatment of hangover. Due to these factors, people should use caution when using dietary supplements for the prevention or treatment of hangover. Overall, the easiest, safest, and least expensive way to avoid a hangover is to avoid consuming large amounts of alcohol. 

If you or a loved one develops unwanted signs or symptoms after exposure to alcohol, get help from Poison Control immediately. Help is available online with webPOISONCONTROL, and by phone at 1-800-222-1222. Both options are free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day.

Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD
Medical Toxicologist

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Drink alcohol in moderation, not in excess. Moderate drinking is defined as the consumption of 2 drinks or less per day for men, and 1 drink or less per day for women.
  • Do not drink alcohol if you take other medications that can cause sedation, including benzodiazepines such as lorazepam (Ativan®) and alprazolam (Xanax®), diphenhydramine (Benadryl®), and antidepressants. 
  • Do not drive or operate machinery after drinking alcohol.

This Really Happened

In a clinical study, 95 healthy adults underwent neurocognitive testing. Then, they consumed either Wild Turkey® bourbon or Absolut® vodka mixed with caffeine-free cola, or caffeine-free cola alone. The study subjects drank enough alcohol to reach a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.1 g% (higher than the legal driving BAC of 0.08 g%). The study participants were then monitored as they slept. The next morning, they again underwent neurocognitive testing and completed a test to assess hangover severity. Compared with the individuals who drank cola alone, the subjects who consumed alcohol were found to have more hangover symptoms, decreased sleep efficiency, and impaired attention and speed on neurocognitive testing. 

For More Information

Alcohol and Public Health (CDC)

FDA Warns Companies Illegally Selling Hangover Remedies (U.S. Food & Drug Administration)

Hangovers (National Institute of Health)


References

Devenney LE, Coyle KB, Roth T, Verster JC. Sleep after Heavy Alcohol Consumption and Physical Activity Levels during Alcohol Hangover. J Clin Med. 2019 May 27;8(5):752. 

Palmer E, Tyacke R, Sastre M, Lingford-Hughes A, Nutt D, Ward RJ. Alcohol Hangover: Underlying Biochemical, Inflammatory and Neurochemical Mechanisms. Alcohol. 2019 May 1;54(3):196-203.

Rohsenow DJ, Howland J, Arnedt JT, Almeida AB, Greece J, Minsky S, Kempler CS, Sales S. Intoxication with bourbon versus vodka: effects on hangover, sleep, and next-day neurocognitive performance in young adults. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2010 Mar 1;34(3):509-18.

Slutske WS, Piasecki TM, Nathanson L, Statham DJ, Martin NG. Genetic influences on alcohol-related hangover. Addiction. 2014 Dec;109(12):2027-34.

Swift R, Davidson D. Alcohol hangover: mechanisms and mediators. Alcohol Health Res World. 1998;22(1):54-60.

Verster JC, van Rossum CJI, Scholey A. Unknown safety and efficacy of alcohol hangover treatments puts consumers at risk. Addict Behav. 2021 Nov;122:107029.

Verster JC, Scholey A, van de Loo AJAE, Benson S, Stock AK. Updating the Definition of the Alcohol Hangover. J Clin Med. 2020 Mar 18;9(3):823.

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

Yokoyama M, Yokoyama A, Yokoyama T, Funazu K, Hamana G, Kondo S, Yamashita T, Nakamura H. Hangover susceptibility in relation to aldehyde dehydrogenase-2 genotype, alcohol flushing, and mean corpuscular volume in Japanese workers. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2005 Jul;29(7):1165-71.

Poisoned?

Call 1-800-222-1222 or

HELP ME online

Prevention Tips

  • Drink alcohol in moderation, not in excess. Moderate drinking is defined as the consumption of 2 drinks or less per day for men, and 1 drink or less per day for women.
  • Do not drink alcohol if you take other medications that can cause sedation, including benzodiazepines such as lorazepam (Ativan®) and alprazolam (Xanax®), diphenhydramine (Benadryl®), and antidepressants. 
  • Do not drive or operate machinery after drinking alcohol.

This Really Happened

In a clinical study, 95 healthy adults underwent neurocognitive testing. Then, they consumed either Wild Turkey® bourbon or Absolut® vodka mixed with caffeine-free cola, or caffeine-free cola alone. The study subjects drank enough alcohol to reach a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.1 g% (higher than the legal driving BAC of 0.08 g%). The study participants were then monitored as they slept. The next morning, they again underwent neurocognitive testing and completed a test to assess hangover severity. Compared with the individuals who drank cola alone, the subjects who consumed alcohol were found to have more hangover symptoms, decreased sleep efficiency, and impaired attention and speed on neurocognitive testing.