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Hangover recovery in ER

An intoxicated New Year’s Eve party-goer who passes out can’t be awakened could require trip emergency room.

An intoxicated New Year’s Eve party-goer who passes out and can’t be awakened could require a trip to the emergency room.

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Updated: April 24, 2012 5:16PM

By 15 minutes after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, Dr. Rahul K. Khare expects the beginning of an influx of ambulances carrying intoxicated revelers to Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Room.

Actually, those might be the lucky of the overinebriated — they will be receiving immediate professional attention to their drunkenness and gain a head start on their anticipated day-after hangover from a staff expanded to handle the night’s emergencies, which also include victims of accidents caused by drunken drivers.

“ER is a totally appropriate place for the intoxicated, especially the person who is in trouble — the person who has passed out and can’t be awakened, the person whose eyes don’t open, the person who is vomiting and whose breathing is irregular. It’s better to be safe,” says Khare, a Northwestern Emergency Room physician.

Khare says attending ER nurses and physicians immediately can place arriving intoxicated patients on IVs, pumping two to three liters of fluid into them — important because they are dehydrated — and can give those patients medication for nausea and vomiting.

“Within 30 to 45 minutes, they will be feeling better,” says Khare, who emphasizes that, contrary to popular belief, intoxicated patients don’t have their stomachs pumped in ER. “We don’t do that — we’re supportive. We might determine their blood alcohol content, but we’re more interested in getting fluids into them and lifting their head and turning their head to the side so they don’t choke on their vomit, which can be life-threatening.”

Thankfully, the hangover is something most of us eventually outgrow. The majority of intoxicated patients at Northwestern are from ages 22 to 33.

Weakness from extreme vomiting, coupled with an inability to keep water or food down, are the primary reasons persons with hangovers — the result of damage inflicted on the nervous system by alcohol, a toxin — seek emergency attention on New Year’s Day.

“Sometimes, they become scared because their heart is racing, like 120 beats [per minute], which is far more serious than the common hangover symptoms of dry mouth, headaches, muscle aches, bloodshot eyes, feelings of fogginess, dizziness,” Khare says.

To avoid a hangover, Khare recommends the obvious — don’t overimbibe — but also suggests:

† Properly hydrate. Drink three to four glasses of water before consuming alcohol.

† Eat adequately. Science hasn’t proven the popular notion that eating starchy or greasy foods such as bacon cheeseburgers before imbibing helps avoid a hangover. However, Khare says even starchy or greasy food is better than no food.

† Pace yourself. Drink a glass of juice or water between every drink to limit the alcohol.

After consuming alcohol, drink two glasses of water and take ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) before going to bed to lessen head and muscle aches when you awaken.

Bartenders often tell patrons wishing to avoid hangovers to not mix alcoholic drinks and to stick with light-colored spirits (such as vodka or white wine), contending that the darker the wine, beer or liquor (brandy, bourbon, whisky), the worse the hangover.

Khare stresses his concern about young drinkers combining alcohol with popular overcaffeinated beverages: “The problem is that Red Bull and similar overcaffeinated drinks fight drowsiness, which can alter one’s ability to recognize how drunk he or she really is while continuing to imbibe.

“As a result, we’re seeing more alcohol-related emergencies.”

Having seen his share of victims of accidents caused by drunken drivers, Khare says he frequently is asked how many alcoholic drinks someone can consume and still drive safely.

“My answer is simple: If you drink alcohol, you shouldn’t drive.”

Sandy Thorn Clark is a local free-lance writer.

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