Can a Hangover Kill You?

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

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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 cool 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!

Every other Thursday we share our research and actionable advice to help you and those you care about. If you enjoyed this, join our FREE updates.


  • Simon Tzilser

    Reply Reply July 17, 2014

    Well I must say that this article is very timely as it’s a Thursday and we tend to loosen up!

    I didn’t know about the connection with cancer, that’s an eye opener for me.

    And thanks for the calculator, I’ll be sharing this with friends and clients, weekend is coming up and having this knowledge will help us with more mindful and careful.

    Well done for raising awareness!


    • Maurice Castelijn

      Reply Reply July 17, 2014

      Simon, yes the drinkaware calculator is really useful – especially for those who attempt drinking even a little when driving (which I, out of principle, don’t do). This is also a useful checklist I didn’t include that is worth adding here:

    • Korey

      Reply Reply June 1, 2016

      The reason I looked up this was because my best friend past away this Sunday she was 31 she had a hangover from the night before slept over my house like she would usually do but this time she gave up on me so now I understand more of what happens to her all there’s simptoms r what I saw that was going on with her 😔

  • Libby

    Reply Reply July 17, 2014

    i must say this is kind of scary. I remember drinking stories when i was younger that I would never repeat today. But back then I never was even aware of the severity, even though it really did feel like i was going to die.
    it’s not worth it.
    as in everything moderation.
    thanks for the good stuff here. ;)

    • Maurice Castelijn

      Reply Reply July 17, 2014

      Thanks for your sharing Libby. Very few people will be aware so do share these insights. Great that you’re enjoying our articles!

  • Mary

    Reply Reply September 4, 2014

    As with most people, having a drink with friends or a glass of wine with dinner is not a problem. But it does add empty calories to your diet that you need to be aware of.

  • tracy

    Reply Reply September 5, 2014

    A few observations I have made since I have begun to drink in moderation again after abstaining for 3 years….

    ~having only one drink was enough to produce a nasty hangover the next day for quite some time
    ~the more often I have a drink, the larger the drink needs to be to produce the same effect
    ~my weight is creeping up!

    All negative observations!! I am going back to abstaining.

  • altssa

    Reply Reply December 24, 2014

    I’m glad I read this.. Im still in my teenage years drinking comes easy to ppl my age but I didn’t realize all the bad sides affects it has on us. I’ve had my share of bad hangover and having to feel like I was going to die and its not worth it not one bit…

  • Apple

    Reply Reply January 1, 2015

    Binge drinking amongst young people in this nation is such an embarrasement. Many adults can share about their expereince of drinking excessively becasue they were not properly informed. Likewise, with the teenagers these days.

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