A hangover can make you feel like death warmed over, but a hangover won’t kill you — at least not on its own.
The aftereffects of tying one on can be pretty unpleasant, but not fatal. Alcohol, though, can have life threatening effects if you drink enough.
Alcohol poisoning happens when you drink a large amount of alcohol in a short period. By large amount, we mean more than your body can safely process.
Alcohol poisoning symptoms come on while there’s a large amount of alcohol in your bloodstream. Hangover symptoms, on the other hand, begin once your blood alcohol level drops significantly.
Unlike a hangover, alcohol poisoning can kill you. An average of
If you’re going to drink or be around people who do, you should know how to spot the signs of trouble.
Call 911 right away if you notice any of these signs or symptoms:
- slow or irregular breathing
- low body temperature
- bluish or pale skin
Without immediate treatment, alcohol poisoning can cause your breathing and heart rate to become dangerously slow, leading to coma and death in some cases.
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, so it can wreak havoc on just about every part of your body, especially when you overindulge.
Heart racing, head pounding, room spinning — it’s no wonder you feel like you’re gonna die when you’re being hit with all these symptoms at once. But, impending death isn’t the reason why you feel like this.
To put your mind at ease, here’s why a hangover makes you feel like the Grim Reaper is knocking.
You get dehydrated
Alcohol suppresses the release of vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone. This stops your kidneys from holding water, so you end up peeing more.
Along with increased urination, not drinking enough water (because you’re busy boozing) and other common hangover symptoms (like diarrhea and sweating) dehydrate you even more.
It’s no surprise that a lot of the common symptoms of a hangover are the same as those of mild to moderate dehydration.
- dry mucous membranes
It irritates your GI tract
Alcohol irritates the stomach and intestines and causes inflammation of the stomach lining, also known as gastritis. It also slows stomach emptying and increases acid production. The result is a horrible burning or gnawing type pain in your upper abdomen, along with nausea and possibly vomiting.
Aside from being pretty uncomfortable, these symptoms might also make you feel like you’re approaching heart attack territory.
It messes with sleep
Alcohol can definitely help get you to sleep, but interferes with brain activity during sleep, resulting in fragmented sleep and waking up earlier than you should. This contributes to fatigue and headaches.
Your blood sugar drops
Alcohol can make your blood sugar levels dip, which can cause some really uncomfortable symptoms if it falls too low.
It increases inflammation
According to the Mayo Clinic, alcohol can trigger an inflammatory response from your immune system.
This can make it hard for you to concentrate or remember things. It can also kill your appetite and make you feel kind of meh and not really interested in things you normally enjoy.
Withdrawal, kind of
You know how fan-freaking-tastic a few drinks can make you feel? Those feels are eventually balanced out by your brain and your buzz wears off. This can cause symptoms similar to alcohol withdrawal, but on a milder scale than what’s associated with alcohol use disorder.
Still, this mild withdrawal could make you feel pretty lousy and cause you to feel anxious and restless.
You might also experience:
- racing heart rate
- pounding headache
- sensitivity to lights and sounds
Your hangover symptoms usually peak when your blood alcohol level drops to zero. Most of the time, a hangover clears up in about 24 hours.
It’s not that unusual for fatigue and some other mild symptoms to linger for another day or two, especially if you weren’t able to catch up on sleep or haven’t been hydrating properly.
If your symptoms don’t feel like they’re easing up or are getting worse, there could be something else going on. A visit to your healthcare provider might be a good idea, especially if you still have moderate to severe symptoms after a day.
The internet’s full of supposed miracle cures for hangovers, most of which are hooey and not substantiated by science.
Time is the best remedy for a hangover.
Still, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to manage your symptoms while you wait things out.
Being hungover after one night of drinking isn’t a huge deal health-wise, even though it might feel life threatening. If it really is just a hangover, it’ll go away on its own.
That said, if you have a medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes, hangover symptoms like low blood sugar and rapid heart rate could increase your risk of complications. It’s best to see your healthcare provider if your symptoms are severe or last more than a day.
More severe symptoms after heavy drinking could indicate alcohol poisoning, which requires emergency medical treatment.
To refresh your memory, alcohol poisoning can cause:
- slow or irregular breathing
- low body temperature
- trouble staying awake
You probably swore to the porcelain god that you’ll never drink again, but if you do decide to at some point, there are things you should keep in mind.
First, the more you drink, the more likely you are to have a hangover. Drinking in moderation is the safest bet. Speaking of:
Here are some tips to help you avoid another death-like hangover in the future:
- Set a limit for yourself. Before you hit the bar, decide how much you’ll drink and stick to it.
- Sip, don’t chug. Intoxication happens when alcohol accumulates in your bloodstream. Drink slowly so your body has time to process the alcohol. Don’t have more than one drink in an hour, which is roughly how long your body needs to process a standard drink.
- Alternate with nonalcoholic drinks. Have a glass of water or other nonalcoholic drink between each bevvy. This will limit how much you drink and help prevent dehydration.
- Eat before you drink. Alcohol is absorbed faster on an empty stomach. Having something to eat before you drink and snacking while drinking could help slow absorption. It may also help limit stomach irritation.
- Choose your drinks wisely. All types of alcohol can cause hangovers, but drinks high in congeners can make hangovers worse. Congeners are ingredients used to give certain drinks their flavor. They’re found in higher amounts in dark liquors like bourbon and brandy.
If you feel like you’re dealing with hangovers often or are worried that your gnarly hangover is a sign of alcohol misuse, there’s support available.
Here are some options:
- Talk with your healthcare provider about your drinking and hangover symptoms.
- Use the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator.
- Find a support group through the Support Group Project.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddleboard.