Hangover vs Withdrawal: What’s the Difference?

Legends Recovery breaks down the differences between a hangover vs withdrawal. Keep reading to learn more about we can help you.

October 1, 2023

It is no secret that alcohol produces effects that are felt long after a person stops drinking. Even if you have never experienced this, you have likely seen it depicted in television shows or movies. After a night of excessive drinking, you may wake up the next day with some unpleasant symptoms. Uncomfortable bodily sensations such as a headache or upset stomach may be present and leave you wondering if you are experiencing alcohol withdrawal or a hangover.

While both a hangover and alcohol withdrawal produce physiological effects, these two conditions are very different from one another. At Legends Recovery Center in Green Springs, Ohio, we not only seek to provide clinical addiction care services but also to empower the community with information about substance abuse and the importance of treatment. To learn more about the differences between a hangover vs withdrawal from alcohol, keep reading.

What is a Hangover from Alcohol?

A hangover is a combination of unpleasant physical and mental symptoms that occur after drinking too much alcohol. These symptoms usually begin when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) returns to zero, which is typically around 8-12 hours after the last drink. For many people, this means that they will feel the symptoms of a hangover once they wake up after a night of drinking.

The most common hangover symptoms include the following:

  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle aches
  • Dehydration
  • Increased sensitivity to light and sound
  • Mood changes, such as irritability or depression
  • Decreased concentration and alertness
  • Shaking or tremor

Though unpleasant, hangovers are of little cause for concern if they seldom happen. However, one should take precautions to avoid hangovers if possible (we’ll discuss how to avoid hangovers in this blog as well). Further, they are pretty common, with around 75% of people who drink expected to experience a hangover in their lifetime.

What Causes Hangovers from Alcohol?

While the exact cause of a hangover is not entirely known, hangovers are caused by drinking too much alcohol. When you have a hangover, it is a sign that you consumed too much alcohol and disrupted your body’s equilibrium.

Though the exact cause of a hangover is up for debate, there are many theories on why a person experiences a hangover after heavy drinking. First, alcohol is a toxin and causes dehydration, which may lead to many of the hangover symptoms. Other theories go further and address specific chemical processes in the body that may contribute to a hangover.

One such theory has to do with how the body processes high levels of acetaldehyde that are produced when you drink alcohol. This toxin accumulates in the body and leads to hangover symptoms like headaches, nausea, fatigue, and sensitivity to light or sound. Another theory focuses on immune responses caused by the release of cytokines—or molecules that the immune system uses for signaling.

Regardless of the exact cause of a hangover,  one thing is certain—it’s unpleasant and an indication that your body is telling you to take a break from drinking.

Can a Hangover be Life-Threatening?

If you are concerned about your health and safety due to a hangover, rest assured that most hangovers are not life-threatening. However, hangovers can last for days or bring on severe dehydration, which can be dangerous in some cases.

Alcohol poisoning, on the other hand, is much more serious and can be life-threatening, so it’s important to distinguish between hangovers and alcohol poisoning. If you experience, or witness, any of the following serious symptoms in yourself or someone else, alcohol poisoning may be to blame:

  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Seizure
  • Depressed or irregular breathing
  • Skin that is blue or excessively pale
  • Lowered body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Difficulty remaining conscious
  • Unconsciousness and can’t be awakened

These signs may indicate that the person has consumed a large amount of alcohol in a short period and needs medical attention. This is especially concerning if the individual is not able to be woken up after losing consciousness. If you suspect that alcohol poisoning is present, contact emergency services immediately.

How to Get Rid of a Hangover

difference between hangover and withdrawal

Luckily, the symptoms of a hangover are easy to treat. Since a hangover will usually get better over a day, most of the remedies are to help control the unpleasant symptoms. Here are a few hangover remedies that can help you feel better quickly:

  • Drink plenty of water to rehydrate your body.
  • Eat small meals throughout the day, such as toast, crackers, and oatmeal.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil).
  • Drink coffee to open the blood vessels in your body and brain.
  • Consume liquids with a high vitamin content such as orange juice or tomato juice.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Relax your muscles by taking a bath or shower.

What is Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is a serious condition that can occur when someone who is physically dependent on drinking heavily suddenly stops or cuts back their consumption. It’s a sign that someone has an alcohol use disorder, and can be dangerous to their health. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can vary, but may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Shaking or tremors
  • Sweating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures in extreme cases

One of the main concerns regarding withdrawal is the fact that some of the symptoms are life-threatening. Due to how serious symptoms such as seizures are, it is never advised to stop drinking “cold turkey” if you are physically dependent on alcohol. Instead, it is recommended that you enroll in an alcohol detox program to safely stop drinking.

What Causes Alcohol Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal is caused by neurochemical processes in the brain. When a person drinks heavily and consistently, their brain becomes dependent on alcohol to maintain equilibrium. This means that the brain will not function normally without alcohol. When the person stops drinking, their brain has to readjust itself to function without alcohol and this causes a wide range of symptoms.

While some of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are similar to a hangover, they are the result of changes to the neurotransmitters in the brain that produce feelings of relaxation and calmness. Chronic alcohol consumption alters GABA activity in the brain, at first leading to an increase in the effects of GABA. Over time, though, more and more alcohol is needed to produce the desired effects as the alcohol begins suppressing this neurotransmitter instead.

Alcohol also affects the activity of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that controls excitability and alertness in the brain. When alcohol is removed, this neurotransmitter becomes overactive leading to restlessness, irritability, anxiety, difficulty focusing, and insomnia.

Other symptoms of withdrawal include nausea, sweating, tremors or shakes, and an increased heart rate. The most serious symptom of alcohol withdrawal, however, is known as delirium tremens. This is a serious medical condition characterized by confusion, agitation, hallucinations, and seizures.

Hangovers and withdrawal can both be uncomfortable experiences that sap the joy out of life and leave you feeling awful. Knowing the difference between hangover vs withdrawal is key to understanding exactly what you are experiencing and how best to treat it. While hangovers will

The Alcohol Withdrawal Timeline

Another difference between a hangover vs withdrawal is the timeline in which symptoms occur. The symptoms of a hangover usually go away after a few hours. The onset of these symptoms typically happens around 8 hours after a person’s last drink and can hang around until the following day.

Alcohol withdrawal, on the other hand, usually begins within 6 hours after a person’s last alcohol consumption and may last for days or weeks. It tends to come in stages with mild symptoms initially followed by more serious effects as the body adjusts to not having alcohol. The timeline of withdrawal goes as follows:

  • 6-12 hours: minor symptoms occur such as insomnia, agitation, headache, and nausea
  • 24-48 hours: more serious symptoms start to appear such as increased heart rate, sweating, anxiety, high blood pressure, hallucinations, and seizures.
  • 48-72 hours: the most severe symptoms occur such as confusion, delirium tremens (DTs), fever, and potentially life-threatening seizures.

The main cause of alcohol withdrawal is an abrupt decrease in the amount of alcohol a person usually consumes. This can happen for a variety of reasons such as quitting drinking, reducing the amount consumed, or not having access to it regularly It is important to note that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be life-threatening and should never be taken lightly.

How to Treat Alcohol Withdrawal

alcohol withdrawal detox

Another difference between a hangover vs withdrawal is how they are treated. Alcohol withdrawal should be managed by professionals in a clinical setting. Usually, this is through a process called medical detoxification, which involves a supervised period for an individual to come off alcohol safely and comfortably.

During this time, medications may be prescribed to help ease symptoms such as anxiety and agitation. In addition, therapy and support groups can help provide support and learn new ways to cope with one’s urge to drink.

Alcohol Detox at Legends Recovery Center

Hopefully, by reading or breakdown down the differences between a hangover vs withdrawal, you can understand how to best deal with your circumstance. If the aforementioned symptoms of alcohol withdrawal resonate with you, it is important to reach out to a professional for help. Many treatment centers such as Legends Recovery Center can provide medical detox and other evidence-based treatments to support the recovery journey of those struggling with alcohol addiction.

If you are struggling with alcohol abuse and cannot stop drinking without experiencing the dangerous symptoms of withdrawal, contact us today. We can get you started on the road to recovery with alcohol detox and a dedicated alcohol addiction treatment program. Don’t wait, call us today.

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