Anatomy of a hangover: Is there anything you can do?

Portrait of young man with a bad head after party

Dry mouth, pounding headache, queasy stomach, body aches — all standard fare the morning after a heavy-drinking New Year’s Eve celebration.

Ask any doctor or health care professional the best way to avoid those hangover symptoms and you’re likely to get a sarcastic answer along the lines of: Don’t drink too much in the first place.

The Journal-World sat down with John Drees, a nurse and community education specialist at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, and he offered the same general guideline. We dug a little deeper, and though Drees gave little ground on that approach, he did offer a few insights into the hangover:

• What causes hangovers?

Simply put, it’s the body reacting to a substance it’s not so crazy about.

“Basically, alcohol is a toxin,” Drees said.

The side effects of alcohol initially produce the lowered inhibitions and good-time feelings, but will later develop into the painful ones we associate with hangovers. Why some people get hangovers and others — up to 1 in 4 drinkers — don’t is still not clear, Drees said. There are just too many variables, such as genetics, alcohol content, how rapidly it’s consumed, and whether it’s consumed on an empty stomach.

“It’s so patient-specific,” he said.

• Can you prepare to not have a hangover, other than not drinking alcohol?

Not really, Drees said, despite some of the claims made in convenience store concoctions.

“If you over consume, you’ll pay a price for it later,” he said.

If you catch yourself over consuming, the best thing to do is drink water and avoid mixing in other substances, such as tobacco or other drugs.

• What’s the best way to cure a hangover? Gatorade? Tabasco sauce? Honey?

Those cures are the stuff of urban legend, lacking scientific proof, Drees said, advising that general healthy habits should dominate any post-hangover plan: plenty of fluids, rest and healthy food.

• Is there a point when someone should get medical treatment for a hangover?

Drees said LMH sees about four alcohol-related cases per day. Most of those are for alcohol poisoning or for injuries sustained while intoxicated, such as a sprained ankle. But it’s not completely out of the question for someone to require treatment for dehydration or other issues associated with the hangover. Drees’ best advice is to seek help if you feel there’s something abnormal or excessive about your hangover symptoms.