What really happens to your body when you drink to excess, and when you should be concerned.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Rhalou Allerhand
Ended up with your head down the toilet after a heavy night out on the town? We’ve all been there. Even if you didn’t hit the tequilas, a few too many shandies can lead to an upset stomach. But why does alcohol often leave us praying to the porcelain gods and what are the health consequences of boozy excess?
We speak to Professor Michael Heneghan, Consultant Hepatologist from The London Liver Centre at London Bridge Hospital, about the reason alcohol causes you to vomit, and when you should be concerned:
⚠️ But first a word of caution: vomiting after drinking should be taken seriously as it can indicate you have alcohol poisoning. If you suspect you or someone you know has alcohol poisoning, seek urgent medical assistance.
Why does alcohol make you vomit?
Alcohol is essentially a toxin, and so it can easily upset your stomach and cause you to vomit, particularly if you consume too much.
‘Alcohol is not just toxic to the liver in isolation but, is also toxic to the gastrointestinal tract,’ explains Professor Heneghan.
‘Alcohol ingestion can result in inflammation and ulceration of the lining of the oesophagus and stomach. Patients will present with pain, irritation of the lining of the stomach, pain on eating, heartburn and then vomit.’
The signs of alcohol poisoning
If you consume a large quantity of alcohol over a short period of time, this can make you susceptible to alcohol poisoning.
In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can lead to coma, brain damage and even death. If you or someone close to you experiences any of the following symptoms, seek emergency medical assistance:
- Loss of co-ordination
- Slow or irregular breathing
- Stupor or unconsciousness
- Hypothermia – pale of blue-tinged skin caused by low body temperature
But how can you tell the difference between being blind drunk and suffering from alcohol poisoning?
‘Severe alcohol poisoning results in serious confusion, can cause temperatures to be elevated, can increase the heart rate and is something of a medical emergency,’ explains Professor Heneghan. ‘With severe alcohol poisoning, the ability to breathe can also be affected with gaps as long as 10 seconds or more between each breath.’
‘With respiratory depression, patients become blue, drop their oxygen levels in their blood and are more likely to aspirate or choke on their own vomit,’ he adds.
⚠️ If you suspect someone has alcohol poisoning, dial 999 immediately for an ambulance.
How to sober up
Contrary to popular belief, throwing up, drinking coffee, taking a cold shower, attempting to walk it off and deliberately vomiting will NOT sober you up. The absorption of alcohol into the blood stream is extremely fast and many of these urban myths can actually do more harm than good.
According to Drinkaware, if someone is showing the signs of alcohol poisoning, you should do the following:
✔️ Keep them awake and sitting up.
✔️ Give them regular small sips of water, if they can drink it.
✔️ Lie them on their side in the recovery position if they’ve passed out, and check they’re breathing properly.
✔️ Keep them warm.
✔️ Stay with them and monitor their symptoms.
✔️ If they’re not getting any better, dial 999 for an ambulance.
How many units do you drink?
If you regularly vomit after a night on the tiles, it is worth checking your units and ensuring you stay within the recommended weekly limit.
‘It is very important for all individuals to understand their units,’ says Professor Heneghan. ‘For men and women, 14 units of alcohol per week is the recommended alcohol intake. This equates to 14 units of spirits, or 14 small glasses of wine ideally divided over the week rather than drunk at any one sitting. ‘
Help and support with alcohol abuse
If you have any concerns about your drinking, for additional help and support try one of the following resources:
- For alcohol addiction services in your area visit UK
- Visit co.ukfor a unit calculator and alcohol advice.
- Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. Call 0300 123 1110.
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)is a free self-help group.