There are different levels of drunkenness.
The effects of alcohol consumption will vary depending on several individual factors, but they are highly dependent on the amount of alcohol consumed.
Depending on the blood content level of alcohol, the effects can be very mild, or they can result in death.
There is no one-size-fits-all template for how alcohol will affect someone.
There are general levels that can define how most people react to a specific amount of alcohol in their system. Any single person’s reaction to alcohol is dependent on several variables. If you are a drinker, you already realize this.
The way alcohol affected you when you first started drinking has changed over time, and it probably affects you a little differently now. You probably recognize that varied types of alcohol may affect you differently, and you may experience different effects from the same amount of alcohol on separate occasions.
The major variables that are involved in determining how alcohol affects you are:
Blood alcohol content (BAC) is a measure of the level of alcohol in your system.
BAC can be measured through a breathalyzer, urine tests, and blood tests.
When you drink, BAC is affected by many of the above variables. The higher your BAC, the more you will feel the effects of the alcohol you have ingested.
Certain physical, cognitive, and emotional aspects of functioning become affected as a result of any amount of alcohol use. The more alcohol you drink, the more these become affected and eventually impaired.
Even a small amount of alcohol can result in significant changes in the following:
There are several different models of alcohol intoxication (drunkenness). Some sources use a model with five to seven levels of drunkenness; others use less or more stages of inebriation.
A seven-step model provides overlap in the levels of BAC that can occur due to different levels of alcohol use. For instance, some people with a relatively low BAC level like 0.05 percent may act like someone else with a level of 0.1 percent or higher, even though the person with the lower BAC would not be considered legally intoxicated.
At this stage, BAC is between 0.01 and 0.05 percent, and the person has consumed alcohol at a rate of one or less standard drinks per hour.
They will experience minor issues with the speed of thought, reflexes, judgment, balance, and emotional control. For most people, physical, emotional, and cognitive capacities are not significantly affected at this level.
Most people describe themselves within this stage of intoxication as being tipsy, mildly drunk, or buzzed.
For men, the stage is reached when they are drinking between two and three standard drinks within an hour; for women, the amount required to reach this stage is typically one to two standard drinks within an hour.
The effects include decreased reflexes, reduced balance, poor judgment, a loss of the ability to control emotions or inhibit impulsive actions, and increased confidence and talkativeness.
The BAC level associated with this stage ranges from 0.03 to 0.12 percent.
Anyone who has a measured BAC of 0.08 percent in the United States is considered legally intoxicated. They can be arrested and charged with intoxication if they are operating a motor vehicle, being disruptive in public, or considered by police officers to be a threat to themselves or others.
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Men consuming three to five standard drinks within an hour, and women consuming two to four standard drinks within an hour, will often have a BAC between 0.09 and 0.25 percent.
The effects within this level can be quite different depending on the person. Some people may become emotionally unstable and get very excitable (or very depressed) easily. Typically, coordination and judgment are affected significantly. People may also become very lethargic, and response times and reflexes are significantly impaired.
At this level of BAC, the person is considered legally intoxicated.
Men who have consumed more than five drinks per hour (more than four drinks per hour for a woman) or have been drinking at a consistent rate for several hours, he/she will most likely reach a BAC of 0.18 to 0.3 percent — a potentially dangerous blood-alcohol concentration.
Most everyone at this level, even if they are an experienced drinker, will experience significant problems with motor coordination, judgment, reflexes, and emotional control. They may also have a decreased sensitivity to pain, which can result in a significant risk for substantial injury.
When people have BAC levels of 0.2 percent or higher, they most likely chronically abuse alcohol. Most people need to develop significant tolerance to alcohol to display this level of BAC
It is rare, although not unheard of, for someone with a BAC of 0.25 to 0.4 percent to present as only mildly impaired. Most often, if your BAC is this level, you will have major issues with physical functioning, including significant problems with motor coordination and balance accompanied by substantial problems with judgment.
Very often, people with BACs at the higher range of this level need medical attention. They may be in danger of brain damage, seizures, or even death.
Many people with BAC levels in the upper 0.3 to 0.4 percent range are in danger and may become comatose. Anyone who has a BAC of 0.35 to 0.45 percent (the levels of this stage) is most likely going to be extremely lethargic and/or comatose, increasing the risk that they will suffer brain damage due to a decrease of oxygen to the brain as a result of impaired breathing.
There are some cases where people who chronically abuse alcohol have developed significant tolerance. Even though they are extremely impaired, they are still conscious at this level of BAC. For most people, this BAC level represents a serious medical issue.
If the person has a BAC of 0.45 percent or above, they are most likely dying or already dead from an alcohol overdose. Many references, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), list the potentially fatal BAC as lower than this (typically between 0.3 and 0.4 percent for most).
Blackouts involve having no memory for events that occurred while you were intoxicated. They can happen in any of the above stages, but they typically happen in people with BACs in the teens or higher.
Alcohol use produces blackouts by inhibiting the functioning of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is important in learning and memory, and other excitatory neurotransmitters. A person who has repeated blackouts from drinking most likely has a serious alcohol use disorder.
If you drink more than two drinks per day, or you have occasions where you drink five or more alcoholic drinks at a time, you may be developing a problem.
Mild alcohol use can enhance many activities; however, many people use alcohol specifically to reach intoxication. Consuming too much alcohol can be serious and even life-threatening.
(November 2017) How the Body Processes Alcohol. Medical News Today. from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319942.php
(May 2019) Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) and the Effects of Alcohol. Government of South Australia. from https://www.sahealth.sa.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/public+content/sa+health+internet/health+topics/health+conditions+prevention+and+treatment/alcohol/blood+alcohol+concentration+bac+general+information
(January 2018) Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
Alcohol and Public Health. (2020, January 02). Retrieved July 09, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/index.htm
What Is BAC? (n.d.). Retrieved July 09, 2020 from https://alcohol.stanford.edu/alcohol-drug-info/buzz-buzz/what-bac