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A Drink for Babies Is No Hangover Cure

After years as an underground remedy, Pedialyte is now being marketed to partying adults. Problem is, it’s no more helpful than water.

Toby Melville / Reuters

In Las Vegas, where the demand for vices is only slightly more pronounced than the demand for services that undo their nasty side effects, there is a bus filled with IV pouches that purportedly can erase the aftermath of a night drinking on the Strip. The bus is called Hangover Heaven, and it was started by an anesthesiologist who claims he can nullify post-partying headaches and nausea if you hop onboard and give him $159 and 35 minutes of your time. For those who can’t be bothered with ground transportation, there is a station providing a similar service in the city’s McCarran International Airport.

Whether those pouches actually work or not, for some the prospect of hangover relief is too good to pass up. But not all hangovers are Las Vegan in scale, and an unexpectedly quotidian cure for the rest of them has risen to prominence: Pedialyte, an electrolyte-laden liquid that’s intended for dehydrated babies and toddlers who have diarrhea. The gratingly sweet beverage (which is available over the counter) had long had a cult following for its hangover-dispelling properties, but that crowd expanded in recent years after it was learned that the musicians Pharrell Williams and Miley Cyrus swore by Pedialyte. Adults are now drinking one of every three bottles sold, according to the company, which is embracing its new customers. (The other top use among adults is rehydrating during stomach flus.)

I am not one for believing in miracle cures, but in the past month I drank the (electrolyte-fortified) Kool Aid, chugging Pedialyte after weekend parties and gently evangelizing it to my friends. It really felt like I was waking up less groggy and crusty, and reassurance that it was genuinely helping came from the fact that it was an ostensibly medicinal product (though meant for a demographic that wasn’t mine).

But really, to me at least, that’s the magic of Pedialyte’s hangover-curing sales pitch: Its original use, dating back 50 years, is not as a magical hangover cure. It’s intended for diarrhea-stricken toddlers. As someone wary of marketing claims, I trusted it more for that reason: If a company made an explicit, audacious claim about its product’s hangover-eliminating properties, I’d be more likely to dismiss it as snake oil.

It turns out my faith was misplaced. I spoke with Stanley Goldfarb, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school and a kidney doctor, about the effectiveness of Pedialyte versus water (or simply time and patience). “Is it really improving the outcomes? I doubt it. [People are] probably wasting their money,” he says. “They’d probably do as well drinking any kinds of fluids and waiting until the symptoms pass.”

The root of hangovers, Goldfarb explains, isn’t that the body lacks water or electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, or magnesium after a night out. Instead, it’s just that the chemicals produced when the body breaks down alcohol are toxic and pain-inducing. The surest hangover cure, then, is something that the market doesn’t generally prefer: patience. (While Goldfarb says dehydration doesn’t play much of a role in determining the intensity of a hangover, it can be important to drink fluids if there’s been water loss from diarrhea or vomiting.)

Amy Hess-Fischl, a nutrition specialist at the University of Chicago, says that before bedtime, drinking fluids does matter when it comes to hangovers, but still, Pedialyte is no better than water. “The Pedialyte itself is truly helping because it is rehydrating,” she says. “But any non-alcoholic decaffeinated beverage will do the same thing.”

So why do so many people think Pedialyte works wonders? For one thing, there’s that medicinal sheen—if it can help the most fragile of dehydrated babies, generous amounts of it must be able to help a hardy, fully-grown human. Also, while some do drink Pedialyte before going to sleep, Goldfarb suspects that by the time others actually wake up and start drinking it, enough time has passed since their last drink that the body has already started healing naturally. Finally, hydrating does help a little bit, and Pedialyte might be more enticing than the faucet. “Water isn't very tasty, and these sugary drinks are pretty tasty … People feel more comfortable drinking lots of them,” says Goldfarb. (I would dispute his taste evaluation but his point about water’s deterring blandness in the morning stands.)

Even with this new audience in mind, Abbott, the company that makes Pedialyte, doesn’t plan to change much about the product itself, aside from adding some new flavors, such as strawberry lemonade and orange, and adding the wording “Great for kids and adults” to some labels. The name “Pedialyte” will stay intact, despite (or because of) its infantile connotations.

While the product and its label will remain mostly unchanged, what is changing is how Pedialyte is marketed online. Abbott is already well into a robust social-media effort targeting active, partying people, and, like a scene in a satirical novel, free samples of this drink, which, let’s remember, is primarily for toddlers, are being distributed at music festivals and sporting events. It’s an interesting dissonance: On shelves, it looks like it’d be at home next to a crib; online, it looks like it’d be at home at Coachella.

Even if Pedialyte’s tweets imply the hangover use case, the product’s label doesn’t go that far. "Research shows that hydration is recommended to help relieve symptoms resulting from occasional alcohol consumption. Pedialyte is to help prevent mild to moderate dehydration,” says Michelle Zendah, a spokesperson for Abbott. “That’s the extent we go to.” (Again, in the context of hangovers, the usefulness of hydration is debatable.)

Despite the earnest testimonials of a generation marketers are scrambling to pursue, Pedialyte is probably not the ideal hangover remedy everyone says it is. And while there would undoubtedly be demand for a product that dulls the morning-after pain of heavy drinking, the medical community is hesitant to develop one. “I think it's a big issue in the field,” Goldfarb says, “whether it's ethical to do research on something like this that would end up promoting more binge drinking.”