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When a person takes recreational drugs, whether legal substances like alcohol or illicit substances like cocaine, the intoxicants are ingested specifically to cause a pleasant or euphoric effect. People who abuse drugs for nonmedical reasons can suffer long-term health problems due to repeated abuse or dangerous combinations of drugs. In addition, addictive substances can lead to dependence, tolerance, and overdose, all of which are physically dangerous.
However, recreational drugs also lead to short-term side effects. Even if a person is not addicted to the substance, taking a potent drug or ingesting too much of an intoxicating substance can lead to symptoms the next day as the body attempts to balance brain chemistry again. Many people ingest drugs and neglect food and water intake, which can lead to painful physical side effects from dehydration, hunger, or a lack of nutrients.
There are two basic short-term effects from recreational drugs: the comedown and the hangover. These are separate effects, and the terms are typically associated with different drugs, although it is possible to experience both from one night of partying, even if one recreational drug was involved.
Essentially, a comedown is the physical, mental, and emotional effects associated with a drug leaving the body’s system. Many drugs create an initial euphoria, or high, which wears off within a few minutes to a few hours. Once the body begins to metabolize the drug, the effects change, and eventually the metabolites are expelled from the body. While working in the body, the drug can change brain chemistry, typically releasing more neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which are closely tied to mood and sensory perception. When the brain overproduces these chemicals, it does not immediately produce more, so symptoms like exhaustion and depression are common as the drug’s effects wear off.
The comedown period covers the initial loss of the high as the drug begins to wear off, all the way to a few days after the drug has been ingested. Sometimes, people attempt to take more drugs to avoid effects from the comedown, but this can just make the eventual comedown worse. Additionally, some people take a different drug in an attempt to offset the comedown from the previous drug, which can lead to more serious side effects, including an increased potential for overdose.
A hangover is very similar to a comedown, although it typically lasts for less than two days and specifically involves alcohol. While some people may experience lingering effects of a hangover for 48 hours, most people overcome the symptoms within 12-24 hours after the onset of symptoms.
Most people use the term comedown in relation to stimulants and psychoactive drugs. These include:
Although the term hangover is sometimes applied to other drugs, it is usually a reference to consuming too much alcohol the day or night before. Additionally, one or two drinks do not lead to a hangover for the average healthy person, while consuming one or two doses of a stimulant drug like ecstasy or cocaine will typically lead to symptoms associated with a comedown. This is related to a difference in potency in these intoxicating substances.
Scientifically, no one fully understands why alcohol leads to a hangover. It is most likely a combination of toxic chemicals that remain in the bloodstream, which have not yet been metabolized by the liver, and dehydration. As with a comedown, toxins continue to affect the body the next day, leading to symptoms like illness and difficulty sleeping; changes to brain chemistry affect mood, typically leading to depression during a hangover.
One experience for many people who use club drugs like ecstasy or MDMA is the “mid-week flu,” when the body completely finishes metabolizing the amphetamine. Aches and pains, exhaustion, nausea, and other flulike symptoms mean that the drug is gone from the system, and the body needs healthy foods and plenty of water to overcome the physical experience.
A cocaine comedown involves symptoms very similar to withdrawal, including irregular heartbeat, paranoia, exhaustion, depression, and inability to sleep. This uncomfortable experience can lead a person into a cocaine binge in an attempt to stay euphoric, but this can cause an overdose, heart attack, stroke, or other dangerous physical side effects.
The withdrawal-like symptoms associated with a comedown include:
Hangover symptoms are similar to those of a drug comedown. They include:
When a person notices that they frequently experience hangovers or comedowns, this could be an indication that they are experiencing substance abuse problems. It is very important to get help overcoming substance abuse and addiction, regardless of what type of drug is involved. Long-term abuse leads to lasting physical damage to major organ systems, especially the liver, kidneys, heart, brain, and lungs. Even one instance of ingesting too much can lead to overdose or alcohol poisoning, which puts the person at a high risk of serious health effects, including death.
Fortunately, many people benefit from medically supervised detox and addiction rehabilitation programs. Because everyone has different therapeutic needs, rehabilitation programs offer a wide variety of options for treatment. Both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation programs focus on individual and group therapy as a way to help the person understand the cause of their addiction, how cravings are triggered by stress and environment, and how to better cope with these issues. Therapy can lead to better social support by rebuilding existing relationships that may have been harmed by the addiction and building new relationships with peers who support the goal of sobriety. Rehabilitation programs are increasingly offering additional support from nutritionists, physical and occupational therapists, exercise coaches, spiritual directors, educators, and other specialists.