For Your New Year's Eve Hangover, Don't Take Tylenol

Feeling like a jackhammer is burrowing into your head and a cement mixer is churning in your stomach is no way to start the new year. But for those of us who expect to overindulge on alcoholic beverages during the last hours of 2017, it seems almost inevitable.

Everyone has a go-to hangover cure, be it Gatorade, eggs, Pedialyte, pickle juice or more alcohol. There are slicker, commercial options, too. One company offers a "hangover bus." Another encourages formerly drunk people to consider shelling out a few hundred dollars for a "vitamin IV."

Still others use medications like ibuprofen. 

Hangover bus The Hangover Heaven bus cruises down the Las Vegas Strip on April 22, 2012, Las Vegas, Nevada. The service offers to 'cure' morning-after revelers of their hangovers using a combination of anti-nausea and rehydrating drugs, as well as vitamins and other medicines. JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Hangovers and ibuprofen go way back. More than 50 years ago, Stewart Adams, a pharmacologist, was testing a variety of painkiller prospects for a drug company when he went out with friends. "I had a bit of a headache after," he told the BBC. So he took a few hundred milligrams of one of the compounds he was working on. "I found it was very effective." 

Despite humanity's long history with alcohol, very little is known about what causes hangovers, Wired reported. Buildup of a chemical called acetaldehyde might have something to do with hangovers, Smithsonian.com reported. (Alcohol is actually broken down into acetaldehyde as part of the liver's process to digest the stuff.)

According to the website of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, which is a real thing, there may also be a link with the immune system and inflammation. If inflammation is really linked with hangovers, then taking something that cuts down on inflammation—like, say a certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug called ibuprofen—could do the trick. 

Even if you're considering medications to treat hangover symptoms, it's still important to stay hydrated, said Dr. Alan Glaser, the medical director at Wellesley Primary Care Medicine. 

There's also another catch. Drugs—legal and illegal—get processed by the liver. In general, healthy human livers can work through the alcohol in one drink in about an hour. Taking medication is going to give your liver more to do while it works to process the alcohol. In fact, you're really not supposed to be taking ibuprofen or acetaminophen if you're a heavy, regular drinker. It's on the label

"We generally would not advise someone to take acetaminophen to treat a headache in the setting of a hangover for alcohol consumption," he said. "It could be too risky for the liver."  

Ibuprofen would be a better option. However, Glaser noted, ibuprofen can also cause an upset stomach. "People who chronically use alcohol, they could have some alcohol-related gastrointestinal issues. Ibuprofen can make that worse." If you're going to use ibuprofen to treat a hangover, take it with food, Glaser said. 

And before taking any medication—even over-the-counter ones—people should always clear it with their health care provider to be sure that any pre-existing conditions wouldn't have negative interactions, Glaser said. 

If you're out of ibuprofen, then you have two choices: go to the store or just keep hydrating. Don't even consider mixing alcohol with prescription painkillers, especially opioid-based ones like Vicodin and Percocet. The combination can be fatal. 

Of course, though medications can help, there's really only one thing to do for a hangovers. "The only cure for a hangover is time," Glaser said.

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