Can a hangover cause shortness of breath? (+3 facts)

In this article, we will discuss whether a hangover may cause shortness of breath. We will also discuss different factors that may affect breathing during a hangover and how to manage such situations. 

Can a hangover cause shortness of breath?

Yes, you may experience shortness of breath during a hangover. Although symptoms may vary, some individuals report shortness of breath during a hangover more than others. Some of the factors which may cause shortness of breath during a hangover include:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Allergic reaction
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy

However, shortness of breath can also be caused by other underlying conditions while also taking alcohol. In case of severe symptoms, visit your doctor immediately. It is important to know the cause of shortness of breath before treating it.

Alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning may cause shortness of breath and slow breathing. In alcohol poisoning, the patient may suffer from irregular breathing patterns where there is a gap of more than 10 seconds between each breath.

The patient may also have shallow and slow breathing (fewer than eight breaths/minute). Other symptoms may include hypothermia (low body temperature), seizures, confusion, disoriented gait and thinking, and trouble staying awake (1).

Allergic reaction

Some people may have an allergic reaction to histamines and sulphites present in alcohol. Due to the allergic reaction to these components, you may suffer from shortness of breath. This is sometimes known as an alcohol-induced respiratory reaction.

Alcohol-induced respiratory reaction may constrict the airway passage and give a feeling of asthmatic attack. The most common symptoms of allergic reaction to alcohol include nasal blockage, nasal discharge, allergic rhinitis, and sneezing (2).

Obstructive sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder characterised by repetitive, partial or complete closure of the upper airway respiratory tract during sleep. Alcohol is known to reduce genioglossal muscle activity which worsens obstructive sleep apnea.

The genioglossal muscle is an extrinsic muscle of the tongue which plays an important role during respiration by maintaining the airflow. Alcohol also prolongs the respiratory event duration and decreases the mean oxyhaemoglobin levels (3).

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is characterized by loss of contractile function and dilation of the myocardium and may occur due to the chronic consumption of alcohol. It is characterized by shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness, nocturnal dyspnea, swelling, and loss of appetite (4).

How does alcohol cause shortness of breath?

Alcohol prolongs the duration of respiratory events and lowers the minimum oxygen saturation levels. However, alcohol does not change the therapeutic positive airway pressure needed to control the disordered breathing difficulties (3).

Therefore, patients with sleep apnea syndrome and breathing-related sleep disorders should avoid alcohol consumption. Some individuals experience shortness of breath more than others because of the difference in alcohol tolerance and metabolising rate (5).

What does research suggest?

In one of the case studies, 37 patients with sleeping disorders were evaluated for oxygen levels and breathing issues during a hangover. The researchers reported that 3% oxygen desaturation per hour (ODI3) worsened after the ingestion of alcohol in 69% of the patients (6).

In another study, 11 patients were studied for the effect of alcohol on pharyngeal and nasal resistance on 2 separate days. After alcohol intake, the nasal resistance increased from 2.4 from baseline to 3.7 after 45 minutes and to 4.3 after 90 minutes.

Similarly, the pharyngeal resistance increased from 1.9 to 3.3 after 45 minutes. The researchers concluded that the decrease in pharyngeal airway size and nasal resistance can worsen the breathing pattern during a hangover (7).

What factors may contribute to shortness of breath during a hangover?

Some of the other factors may cause shortness of breath during a hangover. Talk to your doctor to identify the root cause of breathing issues while consuming alcohol.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD)

Drinking alcohol reduces the level of glutathione. Glutathione is an antioxidant that controls pro-inflammatory processes in the lung. Glutathione also helps to clear allergens and toxins from the lungs. A low level of glutathione may flare up COPD, causing shortness of breath (8).

Alcohol also aggravates local and systemic oxidative stress which may lead to mild pulmonary dysfunction to severe lung injury. This may flare up COPD and actual respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), especially if the patient has coronary heart disease (9).

Energy drinks

Consuming alcohol with energy drinks may cause shortness of breath. The literature reports that consuming both drinks together may increase alcohol intoxication effects, including breathing difficulties, tachycardia, alteration in sight, and perspiration (10).

Pulmonary infections

Pulmonary infections that affect breathing, such as pneumonia, bronchitis, tuberculosis, empyema, lung abscess, histoplasmosis, and respiratory syncytial virus, may aggravate shortness of breath during a hangover. 

How to manage shortness of breath during a hangover?

You may manage persistent shortness of breath during a hangover by taking certain medications after consulting your doctor. However, you must control the intake of alcohol to prevent addiction and other associated symptoms.


In the case of alcoholic cardiomyopathy, the patient is often prescribed a combination of beta-blockers, diuretics, aldosterone-receptor antagonists, and angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (4).

Some people use histamine-2 blockers such as Zantac and Pepcid to reduce the breakdown of alcohol to acetaldehyde. This may lessen the occurrence of subsequent shortness of breath during a hangover.

For alcohol poisoning, IV fluids are given to the patient to prevent dehydration. The patient may be given antiemetic agents to prevent vomiting. Oxygen is provided to the patient via a nasal cannula to facilitate breathing (1).

Lifestyle modification

If you suffer from COPD, alcoholic cardiomyopathy, allergic reactions, and symptoms of chronic alcoholic poisoning then you should immediately stop consuming alcohol. You should consult with your doctor to help you reduce alcohol consumption.

Eating smaller meals throughout the day may reduce breathing issues during a hangover. Larger meals put undue pressure on the lungs due to stomach bloating which may worsen breathing issues. Drink plenty of water or non-alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated.

Avoid alcohol that is rich in tannins. Tannins often seep into the alcohol when it is brewed in oak barrels over a prolonged time. Red wine and whisky contain high levels of tannins as compared to other alcoholic drinks.

Some drugs such as Cymbalta (Duloxetine, antidepressant), Tamsulosin (alpha-blocker), and Celebrex (COX-2 inhibitor) should not be taken while drinking alcohol. Concomitant use of these agents may worsen the symptoms associated with a hangover.

While shortness of breath during a hangover may make you feel that you are going to die, a hangover on its own won’t kill you. But you should call an emergency department or your doctor if hangover symptoms persist for more than 24 hours.

As a pharmacist, I would suggest that you should not consume alcohol if you get a severe hangover. You may make your symptoms worse if you also suffer from other breathing issues, cardiac problems, and liver and kidney dysfunction.

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