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The Difference Between a Hangover and Alcohol Poisoning

Hangover or alcohol poisoning?

Hangover or alcohol poisoning?

We've All Been There

We've all been there at least once in our lives. Saturday night rolls around, and your buddies beg you to go out with them for a "few beers." Before you know it, you're crawling out of the stinky backseat of a taxicab at 4 in the morning, wishing you had never left your couch eight hours before. It takes you ten minutes just to find your keys, and then you step on the innocent cat's tail on your way in the door. You collapse on the bed and fall asleep, hoping the spinning feeling will end soon.

When morning arrives, you find yourself HATING life. Your head is pounding, and the spins are still ever-present. Are you having a normal hangover—or could you be on the brink of alcohol poisoning?


Signs of a Hangover

Maybe you still reek of alcohol; maybe you can still taste the booze on your breath. Did you puke last night? You can't quite remember, but this headache is killer! How do you know if you just have a regular hangover? How do you know it's not something more?

Here are the cardinal signs that you are having a typical (but quite unpleasant) hangover:

  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light and noise
  • Nausea, potential vomiting and diarrhea
  • Irritability, decreased attention span
  • You may feel extremely tired and weak
  • Muscle pains are possible
  • You don't want to eat much (or you may prefer to eat something filling and greasy)

Hangover symptoms are different for everyone and vary depending on the quantity of alcohol consumed in a night. Obviously, the more you drink, the more intense your symptoms will be the next day. But why do we experience these symptoms, and how can we avoid them? We'll find out soon enough, but let's first see how a hangover is different from alcohol poisoning.

If you want to avoid hangovers, don't go as hard as this guy.

If you want to avoid hangovers, don't go as hard as this guy.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is a step up from a hangover. It is more intense and more dangerous to one's body, and it can occur faster. A hangover is usually experienced the next day, whereas alcohol poisoning can be experienced around the same time as the alcohol consumption. However, alcohol poisoning can also be experienced the next day. So how can you tell the difference between a hangover and alcohol poisoning?

Here are the cardinal signs of alcohol poisoning:

  • Low body temperature, chills, you just can't get warm no matter what you do!
  • Increased heart rate, lower blood pressure
  • Continuous vomiting
  • Difficulty breathing or slower breathing rate
  • Confusion or stupor
  • Potential seizures
  • Cyanotic (blue-tinged) skin around lips, nail beds, etc.

If you are with someone who seems to be experiencing these symptoms, check their body temperature with a thermometer. If the person is unconscious, passed out, or cannot be roused, you need to get help immediately.

If someone is passed out after drinking, don't leave them by themselves.

If someone is passed out after drinking, don't leave them by themselves.

What to Do If You Suspect Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning is very serious and can be fatal. If you are with someone who is having trouble breathing, is vomiting profusely, or is confused or in a stupor—or if you notice any other signs of alcohol poisoning—call an ambulance or the poison control center immediately. You don't ever want to leave a person with alcohol poisoning in a tub or sleeping by themselves because they can lose their gag reflex. This means that if they vomit and no one is around, they can easily choke on their own vomit and die.

Cold showers or baths are not a good idea, as the body temperature is already dropping. Wrap them up in a blanket and monitor their breathing until the ambulance arrives. Prop them up with pillows or blankets to prevent potential vomiting and aspiration (choking).

If the person you are worried about is you, hopefully you are alert enough to realize it! You need to get help immediately. Call 911 or a poison control center to get help ASAP. If it's the next day, you might feel severely dehydrated along with the other alcohol poisoning symptoms. Rehydrate yourself with lots of water (even if you continually vomit it back up), and try to eat something filling. If you have anything beyond mild dehydration and a headache, you need to go to the hospital.

If someone you know is experiencing symptoms of alcohol poisoning, call an ambulance and keep them warm until the ambulance arrives.

If someone you know is experiencing symptoms of alcohol poisoning, call an ambulance and keep them warm until the ambulance arrives.

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Read More From Healthproadvice

How to Avoid Alcohol Poisoning

To avoid all of this unpleasantness, the easiest thing to do is to control your drinking (if indeed you still plan to drink). Stop yourself after two drinks, as hard as that might be. This will help you avoid a hangover the next morning, and it will definitely prevent alcohol poisoning. You should also be drinking water between drinks and after drinking to prevent the alcohol from dehydrating your body (alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it makes your body flush out fluids). Also, make sure you have a good, heavy meal before drinking.

Never drink and drive. Call a cab, uber, or a friend!

Pink rabbit says, "Drink responsibly!"

Pink rabbit says, "Drink responsibly!"

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are withdrawal symptoms synonymous with a hangover?

Answer: No. Withdrawal symptoms only occur in people who are severely addicted to alcohol (as in drinking all day, every day.) Withdrawal symptoms can involve hallucinations and tremors. It can be deadly. If you are an alcoholic and think you're withdrawing, you need to go to the ER.

© 2013 Kitty Fields


Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on May 17, 2016:

Cynthia - Thank you so much! Agreed.

Cynthia Haltom from Diamondhead on May 16, 2016:

As a health educator, I have taught this subject and I must say you covered all of the issues. More people need to be able to recognize alcohol poisoning. But most of all it should to taught so it can be prevented.

Aleksey Donets from Cherkassy, Ukraine on January 04, 2016:

Thanks a lot - the article really sounds useful, especially during the holidays... Personally, I have never experienced the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, because I’ve never been drunk to such an extent. At the same time, there are, probably, no people, who have never felt the signs of the hangover. I actually believe that everyone should control the amount of alcohol consumed. This is the best way to prevent alcohol poisoning!

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on July 09, 2015:

fpherj48 - LOL! So true. It is a scary thing. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Suzie from Carson City on July 08, 2015:

Whoa! Alcohol poisoning sounds DREADFUL....actually Lethal! What a horrendous situation for a rational adult to self-inflict!! Happily, I can claim to never having experienced such a state. Sounds much worse than a terrible case of fierce flu!

However, if memory serves me correctly (and I hope it does, so I know I didn't kill brain cells!!) my younger wild & crazy days, keeping up with friends just as crazy...I recall being SICK enough to swear up, down and sideways I would never put another drop of that poison into my system ever again.

Only took a few times to literally MEAN that...and just give it up for GOOD!.....So glad I did.

Educational work here Kitty. I hope you scared a whole lot of people!! LOL....UP++tweeted...

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on July 08, 2015:

Chris - I think most of us have experienced both to a certain degree. They both stink! LOL Thanks for sharing.

Krzysztof Willman from Parlin, New Jersey on July 07, 2015:

Well said and written. I've experienced both of these scenarios before and it was brutal. My mistake was drinking on an empty stomach and exceeding my limits. It's a lesson learned that I hope can make others realize just how dangerous it is. A couple hours of a buzz is not worth risking either your or other people's lives. Well done.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on May 25, 2015:

Hendrika - You're right, and it's very sad. Thanks for reiterating!

Hendrika from Pretoria, South Africa on May 25, 2015:

I think it is very important for young people to be aware of the difference. Every year we hear of students dying from alcohol poisoning. I agree about the drinking water between drinks and I also find you drink less if you are not thirsty so always drink a huge glass of water before you start drinking and you not drink your first drink too fast.

Nancy Yager from Hamburg, New York on February 13, 2013:

Some people just have a thirst for alcohol which causes them to drink it much too fast.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on February 11, 2013:

Sue - Yes, I sometimes only drink a very small amount and my stomach just cannot handle it. Certain people have more sensitive stomachs and livers towards the alcohol. Thanks for reading!

Sue826 from Albuquerque on February 11, 2013:

A couple of times I've had only one glass of alcohol - usually with dinner - and the next day was sick as a dog - constantly throwing up. The first time I thought it was just a stomach bug but since I don't even have that one drink but once or twice a year - the pattern persisted. Now it's off limits for me.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on February 07, 2013:

Jeff - Thanks! And you're right, college kids think they're invincible when it comes to alcohol. LOL

Mackenzie Sage Wright on February 07, 2013:

Great info. I could have used this info back in my college days, both for myself after a few parties and for friends. I never realized in those days we all knew alcoholism was bad, but didn't think there were any dangers to the occasional binge drinking. But it seems like going overboard in one night like that can be a real threat.

Jeff Berndt from Southeast Michigan on February 07, 2013:

Hi, Kitty,

This is good information to have, especially for college freshmen away from home for the first time. They're too young to be drinking anyway, but alcohol will be available, and it's important to know what to do if a friend overindulges.

Voted up and useful.

CarNoobz from USA on February 05, 2013:

Useful info, kitty. I've never experienced either condition myself (believe it or not), but I've seen my share of hungover friends and relatives. Fortunately no blue lips, though lol

parwatisingari from India on February 05, 2013:

very articulate article

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on February 05, 2013:

francisassissi - Yes, sometimes it gets quite close to the borderline, right? I've been there! Don't want to do that again. Thanks for reading! And stay healthy.

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on February 05, 2013:

Nellieanna - So true! Me too. :)

Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on February 05, 2013:

It all sounds horrid - from hangover to acute poisoning! Hope folks do watch out for the dangerous signals!

Kitty Fields (author) from Summerland on February 05, 2013:

Nellieanna - Not everyone is as wise as you, my dear! LOL. Alcohol poisoning can be gradual, but the acute alcohol poisoning is usually the most dangerous and the kind that people need to watch out for...if that makes sense. Thanks for sharing...and CHEERS. ;)

Minnetonka Twin - Thanks so much! Glad you found it useful. :)

Linda Rogers from Minnesota on February 05, 2013:

Hi Kitty-Wonderful article and useful advice. Voted up and hit many buttons. I'll tweet and share this important hub.

Nellieanna Hay from TEXAS on February 05, 2013:

Kitty - May - Interesting article. Thanks for the good information.

At 12, I was left to 'clean up' after my parents' Christmas dinner while they took their guests out to fish (yes - Texas!) They didn't drink, really. But they'd served a punchbowl full of spiked eggnog for the Christmas celebration, with quite a bit left over. I did clean that up, then foraged around in an upper cabinet to find some cognac and wine my Dad kept for rare sips, and I also cleaned that up.

When my parents returned they found young Nellieanna passed out and with what Mother described as a 'black face'. I was horribly sick the next day but it was surely only an intense hangover by your definition, because during the progression of drinks, I was walking back and forth from kitchen to my room where I was writing a story for a Seventeen magazine contest. The long hall en route became more and more crooked as did my sentences, but I was able to walk it for quite a few trips and sentences, at least, till I passed out. So the effects were gradual, not instantaneous as you describe alcohol poisoning causing.

But it certainly did poison my taste for & interest in alcohol! I was into my 40s before I took any more of the stuff, and have avoided over-consumption with great enthusiasm ever since! I enjoy a glass of wine or an occasional special treat; but I REALLY prefer being fully aware and alert much more! A little glow is pleasant but overconsumption effects aren't worth having more than that!

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