Your sitting next to your toilet after a night of excessive drinking—shivering and heaving the little food you could manage to swallow. The myriad of symptoms makes you feel like death warmed over. As your head pounds, heart races, and the room appears to spin, you might start to wonder; “Is this just a bad hangover or do I have alcohol poisoning?” At such a helpless moment, the line between hangover and alcohol poisoning can seem rather thin. For this reason, it’s important to differentiate between the symptoms of alcohol poisoning and a hangover.
In a simplified explanation, a hangover is the body’s way of punishing you for over-indulging in alcohol and overburdening your system with toxins – i.e., the body is working overtime but it can get the job done. The after-effects may make you feel like death is beckoning, but it’s not a life-threatening event.
On the other hand, alcohol poisoning occurs when your systems are overwhelmed – i.e., the toxins are too much for the body to eliminate. In such a case, you’re soaked in enough alcohol to affect critical body functions such as temperature regulation, heart rate, and breathing. Unlike a hangover, alcohol poisoning can be fatal. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 6 Americans (76% being men) die every day due to alcohol poisoning. Read for an in-depth explanation of the signs of alcohol poisoning and what to do in the case of an event.
What does a hangover feel like—and how is it different from alcohol poisoning? If you’ve been drinking too much but the unpleasant feelings only appear at a later time, then you’re likely suffering from a hangover. The body’s process of metabolizing and expelling ethanol-related toxins is accompanied by unwanted psychological and physical effects – including decreased blood sugar, irritation of the stomach lining, dehydration, dilation of blood vessels, and inflammation. Collectively, these responses manifest as the physical symptoms that make every drinker regret the night before.
Now that you have a good of what is a hangover, let’s look at what you feel—and why you feel that way. Ask anyone, “What does a hangover feel like?” and you’ll receive all kinds of answers that make it sound like the grim reaper came calling – and it’s understandable.
Contrary to common assumptions, alcohol is not a stimulant (at least officially). Although small quantities can “loosen you up,” it’s primarily classified as a depressant—meaning it inhibits the central nervous system. In high quantities, its depressant effects can wreak havoc on your entire body leading to symptoms of a hangover as shown below.
Health-wise, a one-night hangover isn’t such a huge deal—and as we will elaborate in the next section—it goes away all on its own. But if the symptoms are more severe such as irregular breathing, confusion, or seizures, it could indicate alcohol poisoning. Such an event demands immediate medical attention. You should also be concerned if the victim of a hangover has other medical conditions such as a history of diabetes or heart disease—which may exuberate the symptoms of a hangover.
If you’re suffering from a bad hangover, relief can’t come soon enough. You raid online resources (such as this one), ask for advice from friends, or even drag yourself to the nearest pharmacy – all in a desperate plea to experience some semblance of normalcy. Fortunately, hangovers last for around 24 hours—but it can feel like an eternity of mental and physical torment.
If your symptoms pass the 24-hour mark, it’s advisable to seek medical help. But please note that the question on “How long does a hangover last?” depends on several factors.
The internet is crowded with supposed silver bullets to remedy hangovers—most of which are not substantiated by science. However, the only true cure for a hangover is time! Wait it out and give your body time to expel the toxins. You should feel a lot better before a day is over. But as you put your trust in your body’s ability to restore order, here are a few hangover remedies to ease your suffering:
As explained earlier, the symptoms of a hangover appear when the level of alcohol in your blood drops—hence the reason you typically experience the effects the morning after a night out. On the other hand, signs of alcohol poisoning appear when there’s too much alcohol in your bloodstream to the point that it can’t be safely processed by the body. This typically happens when you binge drink – i.e., drinks a toxic amount of alcohol in a short time.
Without immediate medical intervention, the symptoms of alcohol poisoning pose a serious health risk. Therefore, you should know how to spot the signs of someone with alcohol poisoning. Their lives might be hinged on your interpretation of the situation and speed of response.
If you notice someone with some of the symptoms below—especially after binge drinking—find emergency medical help as quickly as possible.
When you drink any alcoholic product—including accidental consumption of household products—the liver is mandated with the task of filtering out the toxins from your blood. Normally, the body can effectively process around one unit of alcohol every hour. But if you drink too much in a short time, the liver becomes overwhelmed and it can’t process the alcohol. This leads to a sharp increase in your BAC (blood alcohol concentration). Therefore, the risk of alcohol poisoning increases relative to the number of alcohol units consumed in a sitting.
Wondering exactly how much alcohol is too much? Below is a breakdown of the effects of binge drinking in relation to the number of alcohol units consumed.
PS: A “unit” is measured based on the ABV (Alcohol by Volume) of a particular drink. For example, a single 25ml shot of spirits (40% ABV) and around 250 ml of lower-strength beer (3.6% ABV) both represent a unit of alcohol.
When someone exhibits signs of alcohol poisoning—especially after binge drinking—it’s vital that they get help immediately. At the emergency department of a hospital, the medical practitioners will often insert a tube in their windpipe to help with breathing, fit an IV (intravenous tube) to top up the level of vitamins, blood sugar, and water in their bloodstream, and even pump their stomach (in extreme cases) to expel excess alcohol. But as you wait for the emergency medical services to arrive, here are a few things you can do to help.
If you find yourself continually binge drinking and always searching the internet for hangover remedies, then it might be time to review your drinking habits. Even if you’ve never experienced alcohol poisoning symptoms, it’s unwise to tempt fate. Below are a few questions to help you determine whether you may be struggling with an alcohol use disorder.
If you can relate to some of the questions above, you may need rehab for your problematic drinking. Alcohol treatment programs help examine your drinking motivations and behaviors in an attempt to identify your triggers and resolve underlying issues. Together with therapy and other medical interventions, the programs can help you get over your alcohol use disorder—leading to a healthier lifestyle
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