How to Cure the Unpleasant Symptoms of a Hangover

What causes a hangover? Learn how your genes, beverage choice, and how much you drink all contribute to your morning-after misery.

By Jesse Hawley
Jan 3, 2024 4:30 PMJan 3, 2024 5:23 PM
woman with sleep mask and glass of water, trying to cure a hangover
(Credit: Thomas Andre Fure/Shutterstock)

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If there were any proof for the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” it would be the hangover. Germans experience the katzenjammer (screeching cats) and the Irish the “brown-bottle flu," while the Vietnamese must tồn tại (endure). 

Before English speakers spoke of hangovers, they used the wonderfully descriptive term crapulous, as in “I’m feeling so crapulous, I can’t risk talking.”

Whichever language you speak, we can agree that hangovers are awful. Studies define them as “characterized by a general feeling of misery” and “an aversive constellation of symptoms.” 

But, believe it or not, some people report not suffering from hangovers at all: Studies have found that around 20 percent of people claim they can avoid post-drinking anguish.

Is it true that nearly a third of people don’t experience hangovers? To assess these somewhat dubious claims, it’s important to consider the range of (awful) symptoms and what incites them.

The Unpleasant Symptoms of a Hangover

In 2003, psychologist Wendy Slutske acknowledged the need for a systematic approach to studying hangovers and introduced the Hangover Symptoms Scale.

It runs from “most commonly experienced” to “least commonly experienced” symptoms — and reads like a diary entry from a Sunday morning, with phrases like, “Felt extremely thirsty or dehydrated,” “Felt very nauseous” and “Experienced trembling.”

What Does a Hangover Feel Like?

Apart from physical discomfort, hangovers can also evoke a range of emotional responses:

  • Apathy: A general sense of indifference or lack of interest in activities.

  • Regret: Feelings of regret are commonly reported, possibly related to actions taken while intoxicated.

  • Confusion: Difficulty in thinking clearly or making decisions.

  • Guilt: A sense of guilt, either general or specific to actions performed during drinking.

While there’s plenty of research surrounding alcohol’s effects, there are few studies about hangovers, which means the causes remain somewhat of a mystery. 


Read More: Hangxiety: The Link Between Hangovers and Anxiety


What Causes a Hangover?

So what exactly causes the uncomfortable symptoms of a hangover? While they can be complex, below are the possible culprits, ordered from least to most guilty.

Dehydration

While dehydration is commonly blamed for hangovers, it’s only part of the story. It’s true that alcohol is a diuretic, or a chemical that causes us to relentlessly pee, but dehydration could simply "co-occur" with hangovers rather than drive them. Dehydration explains our thirst and parched mouth, but none of the other symptoms. Related offenders like low blood sugar levels and an upset salt balance similarly lack a connection to hangover severity. They’re probably just along for the ride, and consuming a hearty breakfast and an electrolyte-rich drink should stave off these nasties.

Congeners

Unless you’re a boutique booze purveyor or highfalutin sommelier, you probably haven’t heard of congeners. Consider these chemicals the personality traits that give each alcohol its own special qualities: whiskey’s smoky aroma, red wine’s boysenberry hue, tequila's quaint toxicity. Often, the darker the color, the more the congeners — and the more toxic its constituents. While the toxicity of congeners might not cause hangovers, it does seem to exacerbate them, so you can try sticking with clear drinks like vodka, gin, and light beer.

Acetaldehyde

The body transforms booze into a substance called acetaldehyde, which is up to 30 times more toxic than alcohol and causes nausea, sweating, and a racing pulse. Does this sound familiar? Acetaldehyde, along with its broken-down form, acetate, may be responsible for the lion’s share of hangover symptoms. 

Immune System

Researchers have recently taken a closer look at the role of the immune system in provoking those crapulous mornings. Drinking alcohol invites a broader suite of chemicals into our bloodstream than usual, triggering an immune response: Inflammation-promoting proteins signal the brain to produce more of them, leading to throbbing headaches and psychological effects like memory issues and mood changes (sometimes called the metaphysical hangover).


Read More: How Much Alcohol Is Too Much?


How to Cure a Hangover

What happens if you drink too much and can’t shake that miserable feeling? Here are some simple ways to help cure your hangover so you can feel better.

Hydrate

Alcohol causes dehydration, so drinking fluids can alleviate hangover symptoms. If experiencing nausea, even small sips of water can be beneficial.

Consume Carbohydrates

Alcohol may lower blood sugar levels, contributing to fatigue and headaches. Eating simple carbohydrates like toast and juice can help restore blood sugar levels.

Pain Relievers (Except Tylenol)

NSAIDs like aspirin and ibuprofen can help with headaches and general discomfort. Avoid acetaminophen (Tylenol), especially if alcohol is still in your system, as it can be harmful to the liver.

Caffeine

While caffeine doesn’t specifically target hangover symptoms, it can help alleviate grogginess. However, be cautious as mixing caffeine and alcohol can mask the depressant effects of alcohol.


Read More: How Caffeine and Alcohol Can Make Your Mental Health Worse


How to Prevent a Hangover

Obviously, not drinking any alcohol is the best prevention, but if you know you are going to be drinking, these tips can help prevent that dreaded hangover.

Avoid Darker-Colored Alcoholic Beverages

Experiments have shown that clear liquors, such as vodka and gin, tend to cause hangovers less frequently than dark ones, such as whiskey, red wine, and tequila. The main form of alcohol in alcoholic beverages is ethanol, but the darker liquors contain chemically related compounds (congeners), including methanol. The same enzymes process ethanol and methanol, but methanol metabolites are especially toxic, so they may cause a worse hangover.

Take B Vitamins and Zinc

A study published in The Journal of Clinical Medicine evaluated the diets for 24 hours before and after excessive drinking occurred. It was a small study and results were based on the participants saying what they ate. However, they did find that people whose food and beverage consumption contained greater amounts of zinc and B vitamins had less severe hangovers.

Drink in Moderation

Women should have no more than 1 drink per day and men no more than 2 drinks per day. One drink is defined as 12 fluid ounces (360 milliliters) of beer that has about 5% alcohol, 5 fluid ounces (150 milliliters) of wine that has about 12% alcohol, or 1 1/2 fluid ounces (45 milliliters) of 80-proof liquor.

Stay Hydrated

Drink a glass of water in between drinks containing alcohol. This will help you drink less alcohol and decrease dehydration from drinking alcohol.


Read More: What Is Alcoholics Anonymous and How Does It Work?


Why Don't I Get a Hangover?

The mystery of why some individuals seem immune to hangovers while others suffer greatly the morning after drinking has long intrigued both scientists and social drinkers. Recent studies have shed some light on this phenomenon, revealing it is likely due to genetics. 

A 2008 study published in Current Drug Abuse Reviews evaluated all the research claiming to have quantified the elusive “hangover-resistant” population and concluded that they constitute roughly 23 percent of the US population. But how can so many people avoid the next-day symptoms?

As it turns out, genetics explains almost half the variation in hangovers experienced between individuals — though the potential explanations (which genes are doing what) are countless. For example, many people of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent have a mutation that prevents their bodies from effectively breaking alcohol down, leading to accumulated acetaldehyde, alcohol flushes, and worse hangovers — but with a lower chance of alcohol-use disorder (alcoholism).


Read More: Dry January Can Help You Form Healthy Habits


Do Hangovers Get Worse With Age?

Despite the hard evidence regarding genetics and age, our hangover perceptions may not always match reality. A 2015 study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism separated people who claimed to be hangover-resistant from people who experience more typical hangovers, got them equally drunk, and measured their immune responses before and after drinking. The morning after, both groups had significant immune responses, with no discernible differences between them.

As for whether young people can better endure them, Richard Stephens from the Alcohol Hangover Research Group told the BBC that “there’s no evidence" for the claim that hangovers worsen as we age. In fact, he found that they’re around seven times more likely for 20-year-olds than 60-year-olds, though this is likely related to binge intensity.


Read More: Uncovering the Truth About Alcohol: Is It Really That Bad For You


The Facts Behind Hangover Tolerance Remain Hazy

What’s more, much of our hangover data comes from surveys that rely on participants self-reporting their symptoms. Not only is this unreliable, but researchers don't often account for drinking circumstances: Over how long a period were these drinks consumed? Was there a judicious “padding of the stomach” beforehand? 


Read More: How Long Does It Take for Alcohol to Leave Your System?


According to a 2020 survey in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, the percentage of people claiming to be hangover-resistant shrinks when their estimated blood alcohol concentration increases. This suggests that the hangover-resistant simply aren’t big drinkers. A similar 2017 study showed that the majority of those claiming they’ve never experienced a hangover (58 percent female, 71 percent male) hadn’t drank over 0.8 mg/mL (alcohol/blood); for relatively heavier drinkers, the women and men claiming to be hangover-resistant dropped to 5.8 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively.

Overall, it’s hard to discern whether people who claim to be hangover-resistant are the real thing. 


Frequently Asked Questions About Hangovers

How Long Does a Hangover Last?

The duration of a hangover can vary widely depending on factors such as the amount and type of alcohol consumed, individual metabolism, and overall health. Typically, hangover symptoms start when blood alcohol levels begin to fall and can last up to 24 hours. However, some effects may linger for more than a day, especially after heavy drinking.

What to Eat for a Hangover

Foods that are easy on the stomach and rich in nutrients are ideal for hangovers. Options include bananas, eggs, toast, and oatmeal. These foods can help replenish electrolytes, provide energy, and improve blood sugar levels. It's also beneficial to include fruits and yogurt to aid digestion and hydration.

What to Take for a Hangover?

For relief from hangover symptoms, over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or aspirin can be effective. It's important to avoid acetaminophen due to potential liver toxicity, especially after heavy drinking. Supplements such as B vitamins and ginger can also help alleviate symptoms.

What to Drink for a Hangover?

Hydration is key to curing a hangover. Water, coconut water, or electrolyte-replenishing drinks are excellent choices. Herbal teas, such as ginger or peppermint tea, can also soothe the stomach. Avoid more alcohol, as it can prolong hangover symptoms.

Does Pickle Juice Help Hangovers?

Pickle juice contains electrolytes, which can help replenish the body's salt and potassium levels depleted by alcohol consumption. Its vinegar content may also help alleviate nausea. However, it's not a cure-all and should be consumed in moderation.

Why Do I Feel Hungover Without Drinking?

Feeling hungover without drinking can be caused by dehydration, lack of sleep, stress, or low blood sugar. Certain medications, health conditions, and consuming large amounts of sugar or caffeine can also mimic hangover symptoms.

How to Stop Your Heart Racing When Hungover?

A racing heart after drinking can be due to dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, or the body's reaction to withdrawing from alcohol. To help, stay hydrated, rest, and avoid caffeine and more alcohol. If symptoms persist or are severe, it's important to seek medical attention.

Does Coffee Help Hangovers?

Coffee can alleviate hangover symptoms like fatigue and grogginess due to its caffeine content. However, it can also contribute to dehydration and stomach irritation. It's best to drink coffee in moderation and ensure adequate water intake.

Is Greasy Food Good for a Hangover?

Greasy food is not typically recommended for hangovers as it can irritate the stomach. However, eating a hearty, greasy meal before drinking can slow the absorption of alcohol. After alcohol consumption, it's better to opt for bland, nutrient-rich foods to aid recovery.


Read More: Even Moderate Drinking Is Not Good for Your Health


This article was originally published on March 17, 2021 and has since been updated by the Discover staff.

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