Many people who drink have had a hangover at some point in their life, and most of the time they are not cause for concern. However, under some circumstances hangovers can be dangerous and even life threatening. Excessive alcohol consumption leads to dehydration. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it ‘removes liquid from the body’ (NHS website). This dehydration is what causes the symptoms of a hangover. These symptoms usually occur the morning after an excessive drinking session and may include dizziness, severe headaches, trembling and vomiting.
However, for some people, hangovers can be a lot more serious, especially for those suffering from alcoholism where hangovers are a regular occurrence. Hangovers can result in reduced concentration, blurred vision and reduced reaction times. If people have jobs which involve heavy machinery, driving or looking after others, then these symptoms may put their own and others lives in danger. A WHO (World Health Organisation) survey reported that 25% of workplace accidents and 60% of fatal accidents at work may be linked to hangovers.
Hangovers have also been linked to the onset of seizures. Even those not diagnosed with epilepsy can experience a seizure as a result of a hangover. For those with epilepsy, a hangover can induce a seizure and regular hangovers may result in more frequent/severe seizures.
Heckman et al. (1989) found that out of 70 epileptic patients, a significant number had, been heavy drinkers while underage, had or had had alcohol dependency or/and drunk more than 4 units/day. Moreover, the frequency of the patient’s seizures decreased when their drinking was reduced. This should be of particular concern to those who have epilepsy, have relatives with epilepsy, or have had any form of seizure before, as their threshold for seizure-induction maybe lower.
Headaches are often extremely painful during a hangover and it is understandable that many people take pain killers to reduce them. However, those who frequently drink excessively should not take acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen. Acetaminophen is contraindicative for alcoholics’ with liver problems, as it increases liver toxicity and can cause lesions to occur in the liver. Similarly, the higher the frequency of hangovers the more the likelihood of developing and dying from cardiovascular issues including, stokes and heart attacks (Kauhanen et al. 1997). This reflects the drinking pattern of those who often suffer from hangovers i.e. those who regularly binge drink are at higher risk of cardiovascular problems than those who drink ‘little and often’.
In addition to physical symptoms, hangovers can produce feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt and ultimately depression. If hangovers are regular this can increase these feelings in general and can lead to clinical depression. Hangovers can also accelerate pre-existing depression and lead to suicidal thoughts or self-harm. This is of particular concern, as depression and alcoholism often co-occur due to the temporary mood-enhancing effect of alcohol.
It is suggested that hangovers are a mechanism meant to stop people from drinking due to its unpleasant effects. However, the severity of hangovers is largely genetic so is variable. People who have fewer hangover symptoms tend to be a greater risk of binge drinking because they do not experience the negative effects as others do. This can lead to alcoholism and again depression. The frequency of hangovers is positively correlated with the onset of major depression (Paljarvi et al. 2009).
Piasecki et al. (2005) found that people who experienced more hangovers were more likely to develop alcohol related problems, especially when they have a family history of alcoholism. This is surprising as it is logical to expect people who suffer more with hangovers to avoid there occurrence. However, Baker et al. (2004), suggests that people with frequent hangovers often take the ‘hair of the dog’ approach meaning they drink to reduce the symptoms of hangovers. This can be extremely dangerous as it can lead to dependency and alcohol poisoning. The ‘hair of the dog’ approach also promotes the use of alcohol as a means to reduce distress/discomfort which may lead to the individual turning to alcohol more often in times of distress. Thus, increasing frequency of drinking and risk of alcoholism,
Alcohol poisoning may occur during a session of heavy drinking or after (e.g. in the morning). However, it is much more serious than a hangover. Symptoms may include: low body temperature, increased heart rate, continuous vomiting, difficulty breathing, confusion, seizures and a blue tinge around the lips/nails. Alcohol poisoning is extremely dangerous and can be fatal so medical attention is required. Many people die from alcohol poisoning because they lose the use of their gag-reflex and can consequently choke on their own vomit.
Most of the time hangovers are not cause for concern, but if they are occurring frequently (e.g. more than once a week) then they can have very serious and/or long-term effects both on psychical and psychological wellbeing.