Why Does Alcohol Make You Throw Up?
Have you ever called dinosaurs? Prayed to the porcelain god? Wondered how to get over a hangover? Talked to Ralph about a Buick? Ok, that last one is a little weird. Every human blows chunks at some point. Whether you take pride in holding your own or you gleefully admit to getting sloppy every now and then, it’s a part of life.
That said, it’s not exactly fun. Even if you swear by puking as part of your drinking recovery process, it doesn't feel good. If you have any interest in overcoming drunken barfing, or if you’re just curious about what’s really going on, you have to learn a little bit of biology. We’re going to teach you exactly why alcohol induces vomiting. Then, we’re going to give you some advice on how to deal with it. This might be a little gross, but it’s an important conversation. Let’s all learn to be better drinkers . . . er, men. Let’s learn to be better men. The best men drink responsibly, as you know. They know when to stop and they know when to give up the keys.
There are so many myths about drinking that people vehemently defend things that just aren’t medically true. For instance, some of you reading this are sure that you get a different drunk feeling depending on the beverages you drink. Are you ready to argue?
In order to get past misconceptions, we’re going to have to tackle a few concepts head-on. If you’re determined to disagree, there’s a comment section, and we encourage you to use it.
With that in mind, let’s talk about alcohol poisoning. It happens a lot. In fact, it’s outright common. That doesn’t mean that alcohol poisoning is always fatal, but it does mean that many of you reading this misunderstand the danger you have experienced at points in your life.
Alcohol is a biological toxin. Any time you have a drink, you’re imbibing poison. Literally. That doesn't mean that you suffer from alcohol poisoning after having a single beer. The process is a bit more involved. When you drink, your liver breaks down most of the alcohol that enters your bloodstream. Technically, some of it can leave through your bladder or pores, but most of it goes through the liver. The liver chemically breaks down the alcohol, and you go about your day.
When you drink more than a beer, your liver has to work a little harder. If you drink enough alcohol fast enough, then you’ll be absorbing the drinks faster than you can metabolize them. This is how you get drunk.
Here’s the part people don’t like to learn. That buzzed feeling? That’s the first stage of alcohol poisoning. When your brain stops working normally, you have already entered a poisoned state. Now, this level of poisoning is rarely fatal, but it’s important to understand the process.
As your blood alcohol content (BAC) continues to rise, your liver gets more and more desperate to get rid of it. Eventually, your body enters panic mode. It realizes that there’s no hope of metabolizing the danger fast enough, and it initiates a purge. This is an elevated state of alcohol poisoning, and it’s the first warning sign that you might be in danger.
Let’s sidestep for a moment. There are lots of kinds of poisoning that can trigger vomiting. Food poisoning is pretty common. If you’ve ever eaten something that your body didn’t like and got sick, then you understand the premise. Your physiology was shutting down a source of danger. If you got sick on clams (or whatever), did you purge the clams and then get back to eating? Or, did you take stock of the warning and slow down?
Looking back at alcohol, the purge empties your stomach and small intestine. As long as you’ve been drinking the alcohol and not playing John Cena from Blockers, you won’t be able to absorb any more alcohol after vomiting. That’s a good thing, and it’s why you should never puke and rally. If you force more alcohol into your body after puking, the risk of fatal alcohol poisoning skyrockets.
Let’s summarize what we’ve learned. Alcohol poisoning comes in stages, and as you progress through the stages, the danger increases. In most cases, puking is the last stage where you have a chance to get out without needing medical intervention. By the time you pass out (or let’s be real, your friend passes out. No one is taking care of themselves at this point), you’re in genuine danger.
One last point before we move on. Alcohol poisoning doesn’t have to happen gradually. If you drink fast enough, you’ll skip the vomiting and go straight to a coma. All of this points to a lesson you’ve heard plenty of times. Be smart. Drink in moderation. If you’re not sure if someone is ok, get them medical help. This is a case where it’s much better to be safe than sorry.
In the majority of cases, people puke after drinking because of alcohol poisoning. That said, it’s not the only possibility. Gastrointestinal irritation is a thing that happens; it’s just less common.
If you had to go through health classes in school, you might have learned that alcohol is bad for the digestive system. No single drink is going to cause a problem for most people, but the poisonous substance is hard on the stomach lining.
If you happen to have any sensitivities, this can leave you prone to vomiting, even if you don’t get drunk. When the alcohol agitates your insides, it can get bad enough that your body will want to purge. The interesting thing to learn here is that this can happen to people who are relatively healthy. If you drink steadily for long periods of time (maybe a wedding weekend), you can get an upset stomach even if you don’t drink fast enough to get any poisoning.
Alcohol irritation can also be induced or exacerbated by combining the liquor with non-alcoholic stuff. If you overindulge on spicy food, you might have to deal with some spicy heartburn. If you try to drown that fire with booze, you’re going to hurt. The chance of vomiting goes way up, and it won’t be the quick, dirty, easy kind of purge you do towards the end of a raging party. It’s going to be a highly acidic, painful purge that makes you cry snot. The lesson is to go easy on your poor stomach.
We’ll talk about how to deal with puking in a bit, but for the case of alcohol irritation, the solution is simple. Lay off the sauce for a while and give your insides a break. As long as you don’t have a chronic condition, you can enjoy some drinks later.
Our third common cause of alcoholic up-chucking stems from chronic gastritis. This is fancy medical lingo for having a damaged stomach lining. It can include ulcers, but there are other ways the issue manifests.
If you have this issue, alcohol is very likely to irritate your stomach lining. In fact, most doctors will issue a no-drinking order upon diagnosing you with this condition. If you decide to push through the pain, you’re going to be risking excruciating pain, and you’ll exacerbate the gastritis. Push it far enough, and you can cause permanent damage to the digestive tract.
This brings us to the larger issue of chronic gastritis. It can be caused by long-term alcohol abuse. When that happens, you can be at risk for vomiting even when you’re not drinking. Alcohol can hurt you for years after you swear it off. That’s messed up.
How to Deal With Vomiting
Knowing why you vomit can help you avoid it, but sometimes you’ll still end up in that boat. Plenty of people drink. We’re not here to judge you for it. Instead, we’re going to offer some friendly advice to help you deal with vomiting and recovery. It only takes a few good decisions to avoid the worst consequences of the bad ones you made last night.
Let It Happen
There are two important tips here. This first is that you shouldn’t force yourself to throw up. Yes, that will technically shut down the absorption of more alcohol, but you’re trading one set of problems for another. If your drunk self was rational, you could institute a single purge, and you’d be fine. Unfortunately, that’s not how being drunk works. By the time your altered consciousness understands that purging could help with the spins, you’re too far gone to be precise. Have you ever seen someone get sloppy drunk and then do the finger-down-the-throat dance? There are repeat performances, and that’s really hard on the system. You can outright damage the esophagus in a single night when you go down that road.
Even if you’re the pinnacle of drunken rationality, forced purging on multiple occasions will still accumulate damage. If you get drunk more than once a year, inducing vomiting is a bad idea.
So, you’re not going to force yourself to vomit, but if you feel the need, you’re going to let it happen. Your body is making this decision for a reason, and giving in to the feeling can help protect you from dangerous alcohol poisoning. Your liver will finally have a chance to catch up, and you’ll slowly get sober.
Here’s a tip to help get over the vomiting hump. Take long, deep breaths. It will help relax the throat, so when the big moment comes, you won’t have to retch so hard and it won’t be as painful as it otherwise could be.
This is the most common advice in regards to drinking, but it can be tricky. Depending on how far gone you are, you might not be able to hold down water. If that’s the case, don’t force it. Extra vomiting is bad, remember?
If you can hold down the water, you want to drink it in small sips. A sip every 15 minutes (or an ice chip) is close to the ideal rate. This will help your body dissolve and process the byproducts of alcohol breakdown in the liver. It will also help with dehydration. Both of those things cause hangover misery. So, any water that can be absorbed will take the edge off of the next day.
Get Some Energy
Eating while you’re in the throes of vomiting is not a good idea. That said, the next day, you’re still going to feel sick. Getting some easy-to-digest foods in you will help. Some hangover nausea can come from low blood sugar. You purged the night before, so you haven't exactly been absorbing calories. Clear liquids with sugar (you need a drink with calories in it) are easy to digest. Dry toast and bland foods are worth trying. Once your blood sugar bounces back, you’ll ditch some of the worst hangover symptoms.
Avoid Hair of the Dog
So, the hair of the dog is a real thing with scientific validation. Drinking small amounts of alcohol during a hangover can help your body absorb some of the toxic liver byproducts and flush them through the kidneys. That makes you feel better the day after.
But, if you were vomiting the night before, the hair of the dog stops being a good idea. Remember how alcohol irritates the stomach? After a night of reverse drinking, you’re going to be more sensitive to that irritation. Go ahead and keep your vow to never drink again for at least the next day. It will expedite your recovery. For those of you who are young and don’t suffer real hangovers yet, keep this in mind. It’ll save you from really bad days down the road.
Thus concludes today’s information packet. You know how and why alcohol makes you throw up. In some cases, it’s really bad news. In other cases, it’s more unpleasant than anything else, but since no one enjoys vomiting, you want to have the answers. If you stick to a good recovery plan, you’ll be fine in most cases. At the risk of being a mother hen, we’re going to take one more chance to encourage responsibility. Drinking can be fun, but if you do it wrong, it’ll ruin your life. Be fun. Don’t be sloppy. You’re interested in being a modern gentleman. Managing your drinking is part of that.
Up next: Learn what it means to have a beef intolerance and what you can do about it.