strat explainer

Which Hangover Cures, Pills, and Patches Really Work, According to Science?

Photo: Courtesy ‎Legendary Pictures

Let’s get this out of the way. There is no such thing as a hangover cure. In fact, when I asked the founder of the Alcohol Hangover Research Group, the only group of academic experts dedicated to demystifying the science of hangovers, to weigh in on the science behind various hangover pills and patches, the professor responded with a single line: “Currently, there is no hangover treatment available of which the effectiveness (or safety) is scientifically proven.” Part of the reason for the lack of a reliable hangover cure is because scientists still aren’t totally sure what a hangover is. “It’s not a headache; it’s not nausea. It’s this whole host of symptoms that we loop into one category as hangovers,” explains Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, a board-certified family-medicine doctor in New York City (a.k.a. Instagram-famous Dr. Mike). He adds, “There’s one surefire hangover cure, and that’s time.”

But that doesn’t mean hangover “cures” are all a total scam. When we talk about these pills and patches and even scary-sounding IV drips that people swear by to stop feeling nauseous after drinking or to soothe their headache, what we’re really talking about are hangover treatments that will mitigate those symptoms you feel after a night out.

And though there is some science to back up the claims of these hangover remedies, with so many options on the market, it can be hard to know which of these hangover cures is the right fit for you — and which ones will do the least damage. So to help you make a better decision about the best way to fight your hangover (and figure out what you might be putting into your body), we took a deeper look into some of the most popular hangover cures on the market today.

Treating Hangovers Since: the 1980s.

Preventative or Palliative? Preventative.

Who Should Use It: anyone who worships at the altar of Moon Juice.

Directions: Those who swear by activated charcoal as a hangover remedy will often take two capsules before drinking.

CPH (Cost Per Hangover): $0.14, when you buy a bottle of 100 capsules.

Hangover-Busting Ingredient: activated charcoal.

Similar To: nothing. It’s in a class all its own.

How It Works: The idea is that the activated charcoal will filter out the toxins from your body, and that will, in turn, mitigate your hangover — and it’s not like that theory is totally without a scientific basis. There are articles in the scientific literature that date back to the 1940s, examining the absorption power of activated charcoal, and activated charcoal is still sometimes used in emergency rooms to absorb specific poisons and deal with certain types of overdoses.

One of the most commonly cited studies of activated charcoal’s ability to soak up excess booze is a 1981 study called “Effect of activated charcoal on ethanol blood levels in dogs,” in which six laboratory dogs were given alcohol, followed by activated charcoal. The researchers found that the charcoal prevented the full absorption of the alcohol into the dogs’ bloodstreams, and the logic extended to humans.

Efficacy: dubious, at best. As Dr. Mike explains, activated charcoal won’t actually prevent alcohol from being absorbed into the body. “Alcohol, once you drink it, it enters your bloodstream roughly in about an hour’s time and begins to get processed. It doesn’t sit around in your stomach for a long period of time.” He’s also skeptical that alcohol binds to charcoal. “There’s no proof. I guess you can say if you’re actively drinking alcohol, and you don’t want to absorb some of it, you can take charcoal along with your alcohol — but then why are you drinking?”

Bottom Line: There’s no evidence that activated charcoal works to absorb alcohol’s toxins, but there’s no evidence that it will hurt you either.

Treating Hangovers Since: 2010.

Preventative or Palliative? Palliative.

Who Should Use It: People whose main hangover symptom is a headache, or who didn’t plan on getting drunk the night before and don’t have time to sleep it off.

Directions: When you wake up with a hangover, drop a tablet of Blowfish into a glass of water and drink.

CPH: $0.95, when you buy a pack of 12.

Hangover-Busting Ingredient: a combination of aspirin and clinical-grade caffeine.

Similar To: regular aspirin tablets and a cup of coffee.

How It Works: Blowfish is designed to treat the symptoms of a hangover, especially the headache and fogginess that often come the morning after. “What seems to be going on with a hangover is that your body actually generates an inflammatory response, similar to a flu or a cold, so that’s why you have the achiness, the headache,” says founder Brenna Haysom. The aspirin, then, is meant to combat that. (The inclusion of aspirin, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, or NSAID, is also why this is the only hangover treatment listed here that’s actually been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.)

The caffeine, about as much as a half-cup of coffee per tablet, both helps the aspirin work better and wakes you up, since chances are good that you didn’t sleep too well. “You might be getting to bed late because you’re out drinking, but also the quality of that sleep is poor,” says Haysom, adding that this caffeine will be gentler on your stomach than a cup of coffee, which can stimulate stomach acid and make you feel more ill. There’s also a benefit to taking the aspirin as an effervescent tablet rather than a pill. “Effervescent tablets have been shown to work twice as fast as pills; they obviously also have the added benefit of helping you hydrate because you’re sort of forced to drink water with them.”

Efficacy: Blowfish has not conducted any clinical trials about its product’s efficacy, and Haysom warns that this might not be the right fit for you if you’re super sensitive to caffeine or your main hangover symptom is nausea. But in general, “the day after drinking, probably not the worst thing to have a cup of coffee” for the caffeine, says Dr. Mike.

He adds that taking aspirin, or another NSAID like Tylenol or Motrin, might also be able to help you if you’re struggling with a headache — though it shouldn’t become a regular habit. NSAIDs can be tough on your stomach, especially in combination with alcohol, over the long term. “But, then again, you have to weigh that with the risk versus benefits,” he notes. “If you have something very important going on, taking an aspirin or Motrin or Advil, whatever NSAID you want to take, is probably not going to kill you.”

Bottom Line: a good pick-me-up if you wake up feeling crunchy, as long as you’re drinking water with your caffeine and not combining alcohol and NSAIDs on a regular basis.

Treating Hangovers Since: 2011.

Preventative or Palliative? Preventative.

Who Should Use It: social but frequent drinkers, Bravo-lebrities (Vanderpump Rules star Stassi Schroeder is a fan), or anyone who loves an excuse to pull up their shirt at a bar.

Directions: All you have to do is place the patch on your body — ideally somewhere that’s hair-free, like the inside of your forearm, because it is sticky and will pull out your hairs — about 45 minutes before you start drinking. Leave it on overnight, and remove it the next morning.

CPH: $4, when you buy a pack of five.

Hangover-Busting Ingredient: “A really nice, strong B vitamin complex with some antioxidants,” according to Alex Shvarts, a spokesperson for Bytox.

Similar To: a vitamin-B-complex supplement or multivitamin, or NutriDrip, but without needles.

How It Works: When you drink alcohol, your body gets depleted of vitamins, especially vitamins B12 and B1, also known as thiamine — and according to Shvarts, this lack of vitamins “is what makes us slur, makes us tired, makes us unable to function.” The idea, then, is to quickly replenish these nutrients in your body, to prevent that hungover feeling; that’s why, Shvarts continues, “A lot of times when people overdrink and they go to the hospital, they get an IV, which is primarily of B complexes.” [See NutriDrip, below.]

So in theory, Bytox is a way to get those essential vitamins back into your bloodstream as quickly as possible without the assistance of a medical professional — and without the side effects of taking a vitamin-B-complex pill, which can include nausea. (If you throw up because you drank too much, any pills you took beforehand probably won’t be absorbed at all. The patch, on the other hand, will keep on pumping vitamin B into your bloodstream, no matter how much you puke.)

One cosmetic caveat about Bytox: “There is this vitamin smell that comes from [the patch], this very potent vitamin smell,” notes Shvarts. So if that’s a concern for you, consider putting the patch on your thigh or back, far away from your nose, rather than your arm or shoulder.

Efficacy: “We give this treatment in the hospital to alcoholics that’s known as a banana bag,” says Dr. Mike. “But if you’re not an alcoholic, you are not depleted in those vitamins.” And having more vitamins in your system isn’t going to help you recover faster, so any benefit you might feel is likely in your head. “Unless, obviously, you have a rare condition where you have a vitamin B deficiency or you’re an alcoholic,” says Dr. Mike, “the reason why you’re feeling better is because of the placebo effect.”

Bottom Line: I’ll let Dr. Mike take this one: “In my opinion, you might as well do it with something safer. Just say, ‘Oh, I know if I have an extra glass of water before I go to sleep, I’ll be fine.’ You’ll get the same placebo effect” as taking vitamins.