Can a Hangover Kill You?

by Maurice Castelijn — Get free updates of new posts here.

Anyone who drinks is familiar with the unpleasant hangover effects from excessive drinking. This is how I would define it:

…pounding head, aching body, dry mouth full of thirst, dizziness, nausea, spinning room. You feel like you were beaten up with a hammer and swear you’ll never do that again. Many people liken it to feeling like the flu or even better yet, like they were poisoned.

But can you die from a hangover?

Remarkably, little is known about the physiology underlying the hangover condition. Scientists aren’t clear whether hangover signs and symptoms are attributable to alcohol’s direct effects on the body, its aftereffects, or a combination of both. So let’s present the facts of what we do know.

1. Alcohol is a poison

Your body regards alcohol as a poison. Because it can only process one unit of alcohol per hour until it is all out of your bloodstream.

Alcohol poisoning occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions – such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control – begin to shut down.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, vomiting, seizures, trouble with breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin, dulled responses, such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking), and extremely low body temperature.

2. Alcohol dehydrates and imbalances your electrolytes

Without getting too technical, here’s how alcohol dehydrates you: alcohol inhibits the hormone that makes you not pee (vasopressin). And so this extra urine production sends the water right to your bladder thus preventing your kidneys from reabsorbing that water. Bad news for vital kidney health. That frequent urination also expels salts and potassium that are necessary for proper nerve and muscle function, thus imbalancing your electrolytes. These sort of complications can contribute directly to cardiac arrest.

3. Severe intoxication depresses vital centres in the central nervous system

There are a number of more serious reactions like stupor, respiratory failure, hypotension or cardiac arrest. Oh, and while we’re in the thick weeds of truth here, understand that death may occur from respiratory or circulatory failure or from aspiration of gastric contents.

Cardiac arrhythmias – that’s a problem with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat – are another potentially fatal complication of an alcohol binge.

So, depending on your body’s ability to handle, process and clear the alcohol in your system, you could be looking at some serious issues – especially if you’ve drank enough to experience a significant hangover.

“It happened to me once, a long time ago. I was out with a friend. Only later I realised that I suffered from alcohol poisoning with a ‘hangover’ that lasted for three whole nights and days. I thought I was going to die. Never again, I said!”

How about drinking to a level just above the guidelines?

On the other hand, what about drinking to that level just above the guidelines, but not on a regular basis? Known as binge drinking, it’s quaffing a large amount of alcohol over a relatively short period of time. And it has some serious hazards itself.

UK youths are topping the charts with teenage girls in Britain as the second biggest boozers in the developed world. The dangers of this alcohol abuse are causing serious illnesses. But the biggest danger: death.

An overdose of alcohol is when you have a blood alcohol content (BAC) sufficient to produce impairment that increases the risk of harm.

Overdoses can range in severity, from problems with balance and slurred speech, to coma or even death. Binge drinking affects your mood and memory. Over time this can lead to some grievous hangovers and mental health problems.

Consuming alcohol over the long term puts you in harm’s way with a greater risk of developing serious health problems. Near the top of the list are liver disease, gastrointestinal problems, and cancer.

Did you know that alcohol causes 4% of cancers in the UK every year? That’s around 12,500 new cases a year, according to Cancer Research UK.

Here are four serious direct effects of alcohol over time:

  1. Excessive alcohol use causes three types of liver damage that range from fatty liver to cirrhosis.
  2. Long-term alcohol use can cause major toxicity in the gastrointestinal system, especially in combination with nutritional deficiencies.
  3. Results from several large studies have firmly established that heavy alcohol consumption is associated with a higher cancer incidence and mortality.
  4. Even moderate drinking leads to short–term impairment and lack of control, as shown by extensive research on the impact of drinking on driving.

In conclusion – yes, a hangover can kill you.

It’s a depressant and it can be deadly. But rather than die directly from a hangover, what will ransack you is the poisoning, dehydration and/or severe CNS (central nervous system) depression of over consumption.

You’re more informed now, so make sure to drink in moderation and if you choose to drink, do it responsibly.

Here’s a handy calculator to tell you what’s in the most popular alcoholic drinks.

Do you know of someone who might drink too much or could be helped by just more information? Pass this article onto them.

How about you? Do you have a shareable drinking-story-lesson that comes to mind? Did it help you shed some light or did it downright slap you in the face on the reality of alcohol over-consumption? Please share your story in the comments below!

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