Alcohol Tolerance: Is It Necessary to Stop Drinking? What to Do

In 2015, it was estimated that about 15.1 million adults in the U.S. had alcohol use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Within that year, only about 6.7 percent of these people received treatment.

Tolerance to alcohol can build quickly, putting people at risk for dependence and addiction. By knowing some of the background on alcohol tolerance, people can identify when it develops so that they know when to take a break.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is not uncommon. It can quickly lead to tolerance and cause serious health effects. The American Academy of Family Physicians says that the following criteria determine whether someone is abusing alcohol:

  • A woman has more than three drinks at an event or more than seven drinks in a week
  • A man has more than four drinks at an event or more than 14 drinks in a week
  • For women and men over age 65, alcohol abuse is having more than three drinks at an event or more than seven drinks in a week
  • The person consumes enough alcohol to cause harm to their relationships, career, or health
  • The person consumes enough alcohol to experience related legal problems

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When someone is under the influence of alcohol, it can cause the following effects:

  • Feeling faint
  • Slurred speech
  • Behavioral changes
  • Reduced impulse control
  • Blackouts
  • Fatigue
  • Stomach distress
  • Diarrhea
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Reduced coordination
  • Muscle cramps

Types of Tolerance

Tolerance to alcohol is something that people can develop over time or acutely, depending on the factors involved. Some research also suggests that genetics might play a role in someone developing a tolerance to alcohol, according to a study published in Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior.

When it comes to alcohol, there is a tolerance referred to as functional tolerance.

Alcohol Tolerance

This is characterized by the brain adapting to make up for how alcohol disrupts the body. For example, someone consumes a lot of alcohol, but they do not appear to be intoxicated. This is what functional tolerance is. This type of tolerance essentially forces the person to keep increasing their alcohol intake if they want to experience the effects of intoxication.

There is also acute tolerance. This is a type of tolerance that develops during one drinking session. This type of tolerance is characterized by the person appearing intoxicated, but as they continue to drink, they seem to become less intoxicated. This happens because the body essentially gets used to the alcohol and adapts.

Binge Drinking

Both types of tolerance can be dangerous to the body because they can result in the person engaging in binge drinking. They essentially have to drink more in a session to feel the effects of alcohol. In the U.S., binge drinking is considered to be the most costly, deadly, and common pattern of excessive alcohol consumption, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Binge drinking can cause several adverse effects. These can include, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center:

  • Experiencing injuries dues to lack of coordination or getting into accidents
  • Developing alcohol use disorder
  • Losing control of oneself and experiencing a blackout
  • Control and judgment impairment due to alcohol’s effects on the brain in people under age 26

Binge drinking is defined as a man having five drinks and a woman having four drinks within two hours, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

How to Handle Alcohol Tolerance

The first major sign of an alcohol use disorder is developing a tolerance to alcohol. As someone continues to drink and increase their tolerance, they will have to drink more and more to become intoxicated. The more someone drinks, the higher their risk for addiction.

Once people notice that they have developed a tolerance for alcohol, it is time to consider cutting back on drinking. An increasing tolerance is a sign that a problem could be developing. If you can’t moderate your drinking, it could be a sign of a deeper problem.

If physical dependence on alcohol has formed, it can be dangerous to quit alcohol cold turkey. Stopping alcohol use suddenly can result in life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. People in this situation who are looking to find sobriety should look for a medical detox program to ensure their safety.

A detox program can help people to avoid delirium tremens (DTs), a severe type of alcohol withdrawal that can cause significant and sudden nervous system or mental changes. The symptoms can start anywhere from 48 hours to 10 days after someone has their last drink.

Delirium tremens has the potential to be fatal, and it may also cause seizures, according to MedlinePlus. Other possible symptoms include:

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  • Delirium
  • Mental function changes
  • Deep and long sleep
  • Hallucinations
  • Rapid mood changes
  • Sensitivity to sound, light, and touch
  • Body tremors
  • Agitation and irritability
  • Fear or excitement
  • Bursts of energy
  • Restlessness
  • Sleepiness, stupor, or fatigue

These symptoms can appear and worsen fast. It is imperative that someone is medically supervised during this process. Once someone completes alcohol detox, they should proceed to a treatment facility to focus on treating their addiction.

Do You Need a Break?

Any person who feels they need to drink more to experience effects should consider taking a break. If you have only been drinking on a short-term basis, it’s unlikely that physical dependence has formed, but consult with a physician before stopping alcohol consumption to confirm it is the safe thing to do.

Even if physical dependence has formed, not all people will experience delirium tremens as part of the alcohol withdrawal process. The other symptoms of alcohol withdrawal that are not considered fatal may include the following, according to MedlinePlus:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Appetite loss
  • Jumpiness, palpitations, nervousness, and shakiness
  • Rapid emotional changes
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Headache
  • Excitability or irritability
  • Vomiting or nausea
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Fever
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach pain

When someone drinks heavily on a long-term basis, they are at risk of experiencing several health issues. Possible effects, according to Kathleen Davis, FNP, are:

  • Liver disease
  • Cancer
  • Immune system dysfunction
  • Vitamin deficiencies and malnourishment
  • Heart disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Gastrointestinal problems and ulcers
  • Brain damage
  • Osteoporosis
  • Injuries and accidents

Those who have chronic health issues related to drinking should stop drinking alcohol as soon as possible. Continuing to drink can worsen the issues and increase the risk of others. Again, medical help is needed to do this safely.

Alcohol poisoning or overdose can occur when someone drinks more alcohol than their body can process. This is a medical emergency. The following are possible symptoms of alcohol poisoning, according to the Mayo Clinic:

  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature
  • Vomiting
  • Slow breathing
  • Pale skin
  • Bluish skin
  • Passing out and having difficulty waking up

Alcohol addiction can have fatal consequences. People who have developed a tolerance to and dependence on this substance should seek treatment. Supervised detox and treatment are a safe choice for those who are addicted to alcohol.

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