“You visited our school last week and when you told us all the things that didn’t sober people up you said that girls often believe that vomiting works. When you told us that it didn’t, that didn’t make much sense to my friends and I as when we’ve vomited after drinking too much it certainly seemed to sober us up. If you’re getting rid of alcohol from your body why wouldn’t that sober you up and why do you feel so much better after throwing up?”
When you’re looking for ways to sober someone up you always need to remember why they are actually drunk and feeling as sick as they do. Being intoxicated on alcohol (i.e., drunk) and feeling sick are two different things (although the two often go together) – when you vomit it can certainly stop you feeling nauseous but it will do nothing to assist you to sober up.
Although this is a huge simplification of a very complex process, you are basically drunk because alcohol has reached your brain. The alcohol in your stomach is not the cause of your drunkenness, however, what is in there is likely to cause you to become more drunk if it ends up reaching your brain. A drunk person feels sick due to a whole pile of chemical reactions that are occurring in the body, particularly in the liver where alcohol is being broken down and a toxic chemical called acetaldehyde is produced. This usually breaks down quite quickly but if you drink too much it starts to build up and, as a result, you start to feel very sick.
It takes quite a while for alcohol to be removed from the body (even longer for a young person whose liver has not fully developed), so if you drink too quickly these toxins build up in the body and your body needs to expel them. That’s where vomiting comes in – your body doesn’t want the toxins anymore and as a result the stomach’s contents are expelled! So essentially vomiting cleans out these toxins, making you feel better and also preventing more alcohol from reaching your brain and getting more drunk. You’re drunk because of the alcohol that has already reached your brain, so vomiting is not going to have any effect on that – it certainly isn’t going to sober you up.
But as you said, some people actually feel as if they have sobered up after they’ve vomited – why is that?
When you throw up, you’re putting the body under sudden and/or physical stress and endorphins and adrenaline are released. This makes the person feel pretty good (or at least a little better) for a short time, with people often reporting feeling almost completely sober once they have finished vomiting. Unfortunately, your body does not keep releasing these chemicals and the effect wears off pretty quickly and the drunkenness returns. If you combine this effect with the fact that by emptying the contents of your stomach you have decreased the amount of toxins in your body, vomiting may make you feel a little better in the short-term but it certainly does not sober you up.
Vomiting can be life-threatening. If someone is being throwing up after drinking alcohol, or looks as though they may start, stick with them – never leave them, not even for a few seconds. It can take just seconds for someone to choke on their own vomit so it is vital you stay with them at all times.
First published: July 2016
Updated: July 2023