The psychological terror of a hangover at 32,000 feet is a singular form of torture. It’s bad enough that you’re literally trapped aboard a flying object weighing 175,000 pounds, with nowhere to go but a small bathroom that forces you to see your disgusting, sweaty face in the fluorescent-lit mirror. But you’re also sitting in between (because it’s always the middle seat when you’re hungover) two people who are strangers and therefore expect you to function like a self-respecting member of society, rather than the tequila-perspiring slime who, in spite of your confounding will to limp aboard the plane, really just wants to die.
Most of us have come to accept the hangover at 32,000 feet as a sort of rite of passage, especially those of us who choose to guzzle liquor right up until we board our flight. “I was flying back to Philadelphia from Dublin,” writes one redditor. “The night prior, I had stayed at the bar until closing time pounding [beer] with friends I had made. I got to my cottage around 3 a.m., and woke up around 4:30 a.m. to catch a 7:30 a.m. flight. Needless to say, I was still drunk. By the time I got on the plane, I was quite hungover.”
But despite the fact that every hangover, in the moment, can feel like the worst hangover of your life, the ones aboard a plane are the ones you never forget. “I was able to occupy and secure the end plane bathroom for an hour, so I was able to just sit there and throw up until I felt comfortable,” writes another redditor. “Man I felt like death, ‘I thought to myself, please don’t call for an emergency landing… I can handle this.’ You keep saying to yourself, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ ‘No, 4 more hours to go.’”
But does altitude actually worsen a hangover? Or is it the sheer fact of being stuck, sweating it out, on a fart-filled airplane, that appeals to our claustrophobic demons?
It should first be noted that, despite the commonly accepted myth that you get more drunk at altitude, scientists don’t really know if that’s true. “A study conducted in Austria tested the impact of drinking on young male alpinists near sea level and at an altitude of almost 10,000 feet,” reports Slate. “The participants’ blood-alcohol content after drinking the equivalent of 1 liter of beer was nearly identical regardless of their location. Another study (PDF) conducted by the FAA in the late 1970s found that while both alcohol and altitude independently impacted the performance of pilots in joystick-control tests, there was ‘no significant interaction’ between the two.” (A similar experiment found that the impact of alcohol on subjects answering math problems was the same at sea level and 12,000 feet.)
Having said that, the same article notes that alcohol can make some of the issues linked with acclimating to high altitudes, like headaches and dizziness, worse. “That Austrian study found that the participants who drank the alcoholic beverage had slightly impaired breathing up in the mountains compared with subjects whose drinks didn’t have any alcohol.”
Others concur: “The lack of oxygen can make people worse at doing things, just like alcohol does, at least above 12,000 feet,” reports Denverite. “So, newbies act slightly dumber at altitude anyway, and then you add alcohol to that. (So this study found.) ‘Alcohol makes you feel altitude more,’” Peter Hackett, the doctor who runs the Institute for Altitude Medicine in Telluride, told the site.
It also impacts your hangover symptoms, according to the same Denverite article. “The obvious reason is that altitude dehydrates people, and being low on water causes hangover symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic,” per their report. “There’s a less obvious reason, too: Alcohol can reduce your breathing, especially as you sleep, according to Hackett. Combined with the effects of alcohol, that can further reduce oxygen levels in the body — creating, again, a bad feeling in the morning.”
Luckily, there’s kind of a solution. “A lot of our East Coast clients have that Sunday or Monday morning 6 a.m. flight, so they want to party at a nightclub until it closes at 4 a.m. and head to the airport after. We always recommend they order tonic water or club soda with lime right around the time the club closes to lessen the hangover during the flight,” Rodric Hurdle-Bradford, managing partner of Las Vegas personal concierge service company VegasLuxuryVIP.com, told CheapFlights.com.
To which I retort: No amount of water is going to save you from that mind-jabbing hangover. The only way to get yourself right again is to politely ask the flight attendant to fix you up a boozy gin and tonic before take off.