Hangover Symptoms vs. Alcohol Poisoning – How to Know the Difference

In the United States and many other parts of the world, alcohol is one of the most socially acceptable ways for people to “blow off steam” and have fun in a public setting or relax in quieter, more private moments.

Most drinkers are well acquainted with having “one too many” and feeling the uncomfortable effects of the next-day hangover symptoms. Alcohol poisoning, however, is something very different and potentially life-threatening.

Not everyone who drinks develops alcoholism or alcohol dependence issues, although many will experience a hangover or negative issues related to occasionally drinking too much.

According to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), approximately 13 percent of Americans age18 years and older admit to consuming twice the number of drinks considered binge drinking in the past year.

Four or more drinks for women or five or more for men in one sitting is considered binge drinking. Consuming more alcohol than that is often referred to as “extreme binge drinking.”

It’s important to understand that consuming too much alcohol can come with serious physical side effects, and knowing the difference between a hangover and alcohol poisoning may save a person’s life.

There is no set number of drinks that experts can point to and say, “That will cause a hangover.” Everyone is different. Some people have a higher tolerance to alcohol because they drink more often or have greater body weight.

Generally, though, the more alcohol a person drinks, the more likely they risk a hangover’s symptoms.

The human liver can metabolize about one drink per hour. Unprocessed alcohol by the liver circulates in the bloodstream, called blood alcohol content (BAC), and gives drinker’s the feeling of being “buzzed,” which can occur after as little as a few sips of alcohol, depending on the person.

A hangover that most people experience the morning after a night of drinking starts once the BAC begins to drop and gets around zero.

The symptoms of a hangover can include some or all of the following:

  • Dry mouth
  • Dehydration
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Exhaustion, fatigue, and dizziness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Interrupted sleep patterns
  • Muscle cramps or aches
  • Shakiness in the hands
  • Heightened sensitivity to sound and light
  • Issues with mood, from feeling irritable to depressed or anxious
  • Trouble focusing or concentrating

On average, it takes about 24 hours for symptoms of a hangover to subside, though these unpleasant symptoms can linger for a bit longer, especially in middle-aged and elderly drinkers.

Taking over-the-counter pain medication, like ibuprofen, and rehydrating with water can help with recovery.

The faster a person consumes alcohol, the higher their BAC climbs and impair their physical functions. They might start slurring their speech or have trouble walking or standing.

As their blood alcohol content climbs even higher, alcohol poisoning can become a severe risk that requires immediate medical attention.

Alcohol poisoning is more common than people might think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that in the U.S., about six people a day die because of alcohol poisoning.

While alcohol overdose fatalities in college-aged drinkers receive a lot of media attention, and younger drinkers should undoubtedly be cautious, the CDC reports that 76 percent of alcohol poisoning deaths occur in adults aged 35 to 64.

Depending on the amount of alcohol, blood alcohol can increase for as long as a half-hour. A dangerously high BAC can even shut down’s the body’s normal and vital operations.

The symptoms of alcohol poisoning may include some of the following:

  • Passing out as a result of alcohol consumption
  • A person that is mentally conscious but is unable to respond
  • Showing signs of severe confusion
  • Vomiting to the point of gagging without anything coming up is “dry heaves.”
  • Pale or bluish-colored skin as a result of hypothermia
  • Abnormal or prolonged and shallow breathing
  • Dehydration so severe that it can cause seizures or brain damage

Even if a person is not experiencing all of these symptoms, they may still suffer from alcohol poisoning and be in jeopardy.

For example, a person that has passed out from drinking too much alcohol can suffocate on their vomit if left unattended. Or worse, they may be falling into a potentially deadly coma. For others, they may stop breathing.

If you suspect a person is experiencing alcohol poisoning symptoms, it is imperative to immediately call 911 for emergency medical help.

Someone in this condition should be kept awake, in a sitting position, or with their head turned to the side if they can’t sit up while medical help is on the way.

The best way to avoid alcohol poisoning, and hangovers for that matter, is not to drink at all. When choosing to drink, do so in moderation, drink a glass of water between every alcoholic beverage, and don’t consume alcohol on an empty stomach.