In Australia, some 10% of the workers polled plan to take up to three sick days off to recover from their celebrations.

Considering how much hangovers cost countries and companies, not to mention the pain people suffer, you would think someone would have come up with a cure by now. But so far, no luck, though it's not for want of trying.

Numerous age-old remedies and commercial products are available — everything from herbal potions to IV drips — and they are all put to good use during the holiday season. But, do they work? And what is the cost to employers of all that recovery downtime?

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that excessive drinking costs the US economy more than $220bn annually — or about $1.90 a drink. Some 72% of the costs stem from lost workplace productivity, the CDC said.

The problem goes beyond the US. In Australia, sick days will cost up to A$2bn ($1.6bn) in lost productivity in the last two weeks of the year, with some 10% of the workers polled planning to take up to three sick days off to recover from their celebrations, according to a survey of 1,000 workers by Recoverlyte, an effervescent powder made by Sanofi-Aventis Healthcare Pty to “help your body recover from a late night out.” Of those who did make it to work the day after an office Christmas party, more than a quarter conceded they were functioning at only 50% productivity.

In the UK, researchers estimated holiday-season hangovers cost businesses almost £260m ($409m). The survey of 1,500 people, conducted for the web travel site, found that about 25% of employees work for fewer than four hours the day following an office Christmas party and another 20% of workers will call in sick.

“There are also many social and economic burdens resulting from the effects of alcohol on individuals, families, workplaces, and society as a whole,” according to a review of the academic literature done by the Toronto-based Centre for Addition and Mental Health for the European Commission. “These effects add up to a staggering number of alcohol‐attributable social costs, which can be estimated at €155.8 billion a year in Europe.”    

Currently, there is no effective hangover cure available, according Joris Verster, a professor at Utrecht University’s Institute for Pharmaceutical Sciences and an author of numerous scientific papers exploring possible hangover cures. “The only way to prevent hangovers is to consume alcohol in moderation.”

The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the US National Institutes of Health, shares that view. “The NIH is not putting money into treating hangovers. What we’re trying to do is prevent people from drinking so much they get a hangover,” said George Koob, NIAA’s head.

Still, professionals in the booze industry recommend drinking lots of water, at bedtime but also while imbibing, following a one glass of water per each glass of wine rule to avoid hangovers. 

Christy Canterbury, one of only 300 people in the world to have attained the honor of Master of Wine, says hangovers are an occupational risk she avoids by “alternating glasses of whatever I’m drinking with water. Of course, in wine there is a lot of spitting, but not so much in spirits. One glass of water for every glass of wine really slows you down, fills you up, cleans your palate, and keeps a hangover at bay.

Verster, however, says drinking lots of water isn’t the simple answer. “Alcohol hangover is not simply dehydration,” he said. “This is why drinking water does not help to ease a hangover. It may reduce dry mouth and thirst or headache, but the feeling of general misery that characterizes the hangover persists. It is more likely that the immune system is involved in provoking alcohol hangovers.”

A problem through the ages

Mankind has been looking for a cure to the hangover since shortly after discovering fermentation. From the Assyrians, who mixed ground swallow’s beak with Myrrh oil to calm pounding headaches, to the Ancient Greeks, who boiled cabbage to ease the pain, to the Mongolians, who used pickled sheep’s eye in tomato juice to curb dizziness, humans have long been searching for a next-day cure.

Today, pharmaceutical companies and herbalists offer their own combinations of caffeine and pain-relievers, including everything from effervescent tablets that contain aspirin and caffeine to ones containing high doses of vitamin B.

Modern medicine also offers an IV solution, with walk-in rehydration clinics in London, Chicago, New York, Las Vegas and other cities. For between $150 to $250, a doctor or qualified medical provider will hook a hungover client up to an IV containing saline mixed with Vitamin B supplements.

 “Usually less than 30-minutes later, they’re good to go,” said Dr. Adam Nadelson, whose company “is strictly house calls. If you’re feeling that badly, you shouldn’t have to come into an office.”  About 50% of his practice comes from hangovers, the remainder are those looking to get over jet lag or flu. Asked why an IV was better than just drinking a litre of water, Nadelson replied it was a matter of absorption. “You can only absorb at most about 50% of what you’re drinking.”

Koob, however, cautions that the IV clinics can help perpetuate a drinking problem by offering an easy fix. “Anytime you put an IV into somebody there’s possibility of infection and it’s expensive,” he said. “It’s encouraging people to drink more.”