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What Is a Hangover?

The Regrets of the Morning After

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Updated March 27, 2014

Man With Coffee Pot

Man With Coffee Pot

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The alarm goes off, and it feels as if someone is hitting you with a hammer. It is the next morning after a night of drinking, and your head is pounding and your body is aching. Your mouth is dry, and you are thirsty. You try to move to a more comfortable position, and it only hurts more. To make matters worse, when you move, you discover that 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 work. 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 the more severe symptoms described above.

There is no set amount of alcohol that will cause a hangover, since each individual reacts to alcohol differently, but generally, the more you had to 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 factors: the diuretic alcohol effect that causes the drinker to become dehydrated, and the toxic effects of alcohol poisoning of many systems of 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, as mentioned above, but there are many other factors that can add to the unpleasantness of a hangover that are not direct effects of 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 drinker.

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 don't 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 that can bring 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, though, you can experience negative consequences the next morning. Although there is no sure way to 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. It happens every day: someone has a very bad experience after drinking too much and they simply make a decision to quit drinking and they never drink again.

Others, though, continue to drink despite repeated bouts with severe hangover symptoms. Continuing to drink despite negative consequences can be sign of alcoholism or alcohol dependence or, at the very least, alcohol abuse. Heavy drinkers who have sworn to themselves "never again" during a hangover, but return to drinking a short time later, have, by definition, a drinking problem.

Sources:

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

A.D.A.M. "Hangover Treatment." 10 Oct. 2007

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  8. Hangover - What Is a Hangover

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