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Can you die from a hangover? If you’re asking this question, chances are you’ve woken up with the mother of all hangovers, feeling like death, and worried about the implications.
First things first, you can’t die from a hangover itself. The very fact you’re reading this article is a good sign your hangover hasn’t killed you!
With that said, there are some things to know about that can harm your body. And there are instances when drinking too much alcohol can kill.
In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at why drinking too much alcohol makes you feel like you’re going to die. We’ll also take a closer look at the dangers to be aware of.
Causes of a severe hangover
So, you’ve woken up with a hangover and thinking, can you die from a hangover?
Well, you’re not alone. There are a lot of people who can remember a hangover so severe they thought they were going to die.
Before we get into the dangers, we first need to go over why hangovers are so severe that you feel so dreadful.
These hangovers are ultimately caused by drinking way too much alcohol for your body to handle. And your symptoms are caused by the following damaging effects of alcohol:
Alcohol is broken down in your liver into acetaldehyde (toxic) and then into acetic acid (harmless). Acetaldehyde is highly toxic and reacts with your cells causing inflammation. In normal circumstances, your liver will clear acetaldehyde quickly before too much damage is caused. But if you’re drinking way over your limits, acetaldehyde levels start to build which wreaks havoc on your insides.
Congeners are compounds in alcoholic drinks that give them characteristic tastes and aromas. For example, the taste of red wine and whiskey is partly because of the congeners they contain.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that congeners make hangovers a lot more severe. That’s because, like acetaldehyde, congeners are biologically active and react with your cells which fuels inflammation.
You can read more about this in our article about congeners and hangovers.
One of the main causes of a hangover is dehydration. Alcohol blocks the release of a hormone called vasopressin from being released from your pituitary gland (in the brain). This hormone is responsible for telling your kidneys to reabsorb water back into your bloodstream.
Therefore, by alcohol blocking vasopressin release, your kidneys stop doing this and flush out lots of extra water. It’s why you may go for several toilet breaks while drinking as well as throughout the night disrupting your sleep.
Lack of good quality sleep
Alcohol blocks your brain from reaching the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep. This stage is where dreams happen and is essential for feeling fully rested. Without getting to this stage, sleep is considered light and inadequate.
That’s why if you’ve ever had a few drinks at dinner, the next morning you’ll never feel as fresh as if you’d had no alcohol. Even if you’ve slept your usual number of hours.
In combination, the above-mentioned causes result in severe hangover symptoms such as:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Body pain / Muscle aches
- Inability to concentrate
In fact, studies have shown there are 47 symptoms of a hangover! and if you check the list, I’m sure there will be many more on there that you’re feeling right now.
So, there’s no wonder you wake up thinking, can you actually die from a hangover?
Next up, we’ll take a closer look at some dangers to be aware of.
Can you die from a hangover?
According to the NIH, 88000 people die from alcohol-related causes.(1)
If blood alcohol levels rise too much, it can cause alcohol poisoning. There are also indirect causes of death from drinking alcohol such as accidents that occur from being drunk.
With that said, a hangover itself can’t kill you. By the time you have a hangover, your blood alcohol concentrations are low (if not zero). That means, by definition, you can’t die from alcohol poisoning.
However, there are some dangers to be aware of when hungover.
1) Holiday heart syndrome
Binge drinking can, in rare cases, lead to holiday heart syndrome. This term is used to describe an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) caused by excessive drinking. And it was given this name as it often occurs on holiday where people may be drinking a lot more than usual.(2)
It can occur in healthy individuals with no underlying medical conditions and that’s why any chest pain or palpitations should trigger a trip to the hospital to get checked out.
2) Cardiovascular events
By this, we mean blood clots, strokes, and angina-type issues. There are some studies that have shown an increased risk of these events after binge drinking and this could be linked to the damaging effects of alcohol, dehydration or exacerbation of an undiagnosed underlying medical condition.(3)(4)
With that said, these conditions come with specific signs and symptoms that are well beyond what you’d expect with a severe hangover.
In summary: a hangover itself can’t kill you. But drinking too much alcohol can. If you’re experiencing symptoms that are above and beyond the headache, body aches, and nausea, you should speak to your doctor for advice.
What to do if you have a hangover from hell
So, you’ve woken up with a hangover that you think is going to kill you. What now?
There are many hangover cure myths out there, most of which don’t work. So it can be tricky knowing what the right thing to do is.
The best healer is time, rest, and water. Going back to sleep, having a lazy day, and allowing your body to recover are all that's required. Other than this, painkillers such as Tylenol can help. In addition, ginger tea is good for hangover nausea.
If you’re feeling anxious, just remember that however bad your hangover is, it’s not going to kill you. It will pass!
Anything else to consider?
Hangovers that are so bad that you wake up thinking, “am I going to die” are a sign that you should cut down on your alcohol intake.
The best way to prevent a hangover so severe is to drink less, at a slower pace, eat before going out and drink plenty of water to rehydrate.
We mentioned earlier that drinks high in congeners can also be more problematic. Therefore, sticking to lighter-colored drinks may be better. Obviously, if you drink enough of any type of alcohol, you’re still going to have a hangover that makes you feel like you are dying, regardless of congeners.
Can you die from a hangover? – Key points
That brings us to the end of our look into whether you can die from a hangover.
The take-home message is that the hangover itself can’t kill you. And you certainly can’t die from the usual hangover symptoms that most of us get. Even if they are severe.
In most cases, it’s hangover anxiety or “hangxiety” that’s compounding how you feel.
However, if you experience anything out of the ordinary, such as chest pain, palpitations, loss of consciousness, or any neurological signs, you should go to the hospital to seek urgent medical attention.