Almost everyone who drinks alcohol will experience a hangover at some point in their lives. Alcohol is a toxic substance and can have a wide range of negative effects – both while you are drinking it and afterwards as your body deals with the after-effects and processes it.
There is a big difference, however, between a hangover and alcohol poisoning – which is considered to be a medical emergency and can be life-threatening.
What is a Hangover?
A hangover is not one specific condition but refers to a set of unpleasant physical and psychological symptoms that can develop after drinking alcohol. The symptoms of a hangover can vary from person to person, as well as depending on factors like the type and amount of alcohol consumed, how much rest they had, whether they drank water and their general health and well-being.
When it comes to the causes of a hangover, most people know that dehydration plays a part. This is certainly true and is largely due to the fact that alcohol acts as a diuretic – meaning it makes you pee more. This leads to a loss of water and other essential fluids that can produce (usually) mild dehydration, leading to symptoms such as thirst, fatigue and the classic headache.
There are other causal factors though. Alcohol disrupts sleep, leading to tiredness and fatigue. It can irritate the lining of the stomach, causing nausea and an upset stomach. It can cause inflammation in different parts of the body, adding aches and pains, while the extra work done by the liver can produce inflammation in the liver, pancreas, brain, gastrointestinal tract and other organs. Some people will also experience psychological effects such as anxiety.
Why Some Hangovers Can Feel Worse Than Others
As noted, hangovers have a number of different causes and symptoms that can vary depending on the person and circumstances. The amount of alcohol consumed has a big impact of course, as can the duration of time in which it was consumed – binge drinking tends to produce worse hangovers than more steady consumption. It had been commonly believed that tolerance to alcohol – typically developed in long-term heavy drinkers or those with alcohol addiction – also leads to an increased tolerance to hangovers. Studies suggest that the opposite may be true, however, with hangover symptoms becoming more severe the more frequently they were experienced.
How to Prevent a Hangover
The most obvious way to avoid a hangover is to avoid drinking heavily. If you do drink though, drinking less over a long period and making sure you take in water between alcoholic drinks can help. Make sure you eat and try to stop drinking at a reasonable hour, especially if you have to be up the next day. Being hungover can impair your ability to function at work and elsewhere and may also make tasks such as driving dangerous. If you have not fully processed the alcohol you drank, you may still be over the legal limits to drive even the next morning.
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is much more serious than a regular hangover and occurs when you drink too much alcohol quicker than your system can process it. While chronic or continuous drinking can cause a range of health issues, even at more moderate levels, alcohol poisoning is usually associated with binge drinking. As with a hangover, the symptoms can vary but the main causes of alcohol poisoning always involve drinking too much alcohol too quickly. There can be contributory factors though, such as age and sex, alcohol tolerance and the amount of food you have eaten. Other substances including medications and recreational drugs – particularly opioids or sedative hypnotics – can increase your risk of alcohol poisoning.
According to the NHS, the symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include the following:
- Slurred words or inability to speak
- Lack of coordination, such as being unable to stand
- Being sick
- Soiling or wetting yourself
- Pale or blue-tinged skin
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Having a seizure or fit
- Loss of consciousness
Differences Between a Hangover and Alcohol Poisoning
When you are trying to decide if you or someone else might have a hangover vs alcohol poisoning, it can help to consider how much they have drunk over what sort of time period, as well as the symptoms they are presenting. If they such as headaches, nausea, and dehydration, it is more likely to be a hangover. If there is confusion, vomiting, and unconsciousness, however, they might be experiencing an alcohol overdose, more commonly known as alcohol poisoning. It is key to understand the difference between a hangover and alcohol poisoning.
It’s also worth noting that a hangover will generally follow a period of sleep or otherwise not drinking, while alcohol poisoning may develop while you are intoxicated and sometimes while you are still drinking.
Alcohol poisoning can cause serious illness and be potentially fatal. It can reduce your body temperature risking hypothermia, cause vomiting with a risk of choking, lead to a heart attack or fit, or cause you to stop breathing. According to the charity Drinkaware, acute alcohol poisoning was the cause of 552 deaths in the UK during 2020.
What to Do if You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning
Seeking medical attention for alcohol poisoning is very important and could even mean the difference between life and death. A person suffering from alcohol poisoning may be given fluids through a drip and possibly help to ensure they keep breathing until the effects of the alcohol wear off.
It should go without saying that the person with suspected alcohol poison should not drink any more alcohol. The NHS also advises that you do not give them coffee or other caffeinated products, as this could simply dehydrate them more. Similarly, do not try to make them sick or put them in a cold bath or shower – as this could make them too cold or present a risk of drowning.
When it comes to the difference between alcohol poisoning and a hangover, neither is particularly pleasant, but alcohol poisoning is by far the most serious. If you regularly suffer from alcohol poisoning or regular binge drinking, learn more about our alcohol rehab programme. You may need treatment to help you overcome unhealthy habits.