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Effects of Alcohol (Blood Alcohol Concentration - BAC)
Alcohol is the most used and abused substance in the United States and one of the most used and abused substances worldwide. Alcohol is consumed in the form of ethyl alcohol, or ethanol, and is legal for adults in most countries in the world.
The effects of alcohol intoxication can differ from person to person and largely depend on the level of blood alcohol concentration, also known as blood alcohol content, or collectively abbreviated as BAC. This determines the effect that alcohol typically has on the CNS (central nervous system). Typically, a BAC of more than 0.03 constitutes the beginning of intoxication. However, those with a built-up tolerance can have a higher concentration without feeling any effects.
Depending on your BAC, you can experience various side effects that range from minor complications to more severe ones.
Here’s a breakdown of different BAC percentages along with their symptoms:
- Elevated mood
- Elevated self-confidence
- Reduced anxiety
- Flushing or redness in the cheeks
- Reduced attention span
- Some degree of motor coordination loss
- Impaired judgment
- Poor judgment
- Memory loss
- Reduced comprehension
- Decreased reaction time
- Loss of balance or coordination
- Blurry vision
- Impairment of pain sensation
- Staggering walk (if able to stand)
- Vomiting with aspiration
- Respiratory depression
- Slowed or decreased heart rate
- Potential for blackout
- Complete unconsciousness
- Lack of response to light
- Severe respiratory depression
- Respiratory arrest
- Severe decrease in heart rate
Levels of Drunkenness
There are several levels of drunkenness, which can be categorized into seven main types outlined below:
Level 1: Subclinical Intoxication
In the initial stage of intoxication, this level is reached when the amount of alcohol consumed is minimal, and the individual does not appear to be drunk. This stage usually occurs at a blood BAC below .01% to .04%. Typically, it takes less than one drink per hour to reach subclinical intoxication.
Level 2: Euphoric Effects
Euphoria is described as a heightened sense of wellbeing or an increased sense of happiness. It can be felt naturally while celebrating life achievements or due to the effects of certain mental illnesses, and it can be induced by taking other substances besides alcohol. The euphoric effects of alcohol typically occur with a BAC of around 0.5% to .07%, though it can differ based on the individual and the number of drinks consumed to reach that point.
Level 3: State of Excitement
Following a state of euphoria, the third level of drunkenness is a state of excitement. This usually occurs between .08% to .12% BAC, though it can happen much sooner or even much later for some people. It is similar to a state of euphoria, except it is typically accompanied by restlessness and excitability. At this level, an individual will almost certainly be over the legal limit allowed to operate a motor vehicle.
Level 4: State of Confusion
A state of confusion is the fourth level of drunkenness. It is usually brought on by a BAC of around 0.12% to 0.15%, which is considered the beginning stages of severe intoxication. In this state, an individual might experience general confusion, disorientation, paranoia, mood swings, and even hallucinations.
Level 5: Stupor (near-unconsciousness)
The term ‘stupor’ is often used to describe a severely intoxicated state. When an individual enters the fifth level of drunkenness, they are nearing a state of unconsciousness. At this point, speech is typically slurred or incoherent, with a near-total loss of motor abilities or control over movements, including standing or walking. A stupor is usually reached when a person has a BAC of between 0.15% to 0.30%, though this number can vary. Many people will experience near-unconsciousness at 0.20% or lower.
Level 6: Coma (unconsciousness)
The sixth level of drunkenness is referred to as a coma. Any individual who enters this state has lost consciousness and could be at risk of further complications, including death. It is essential to distinguish falling asleep after drinking from entering an alcohol-induced coma. The former is common, as alcohol causes drowsiness, while the latter is serious and requires immediate medical attention. Typically, a BAC of 0.30% to 0.40% will cause an alcohol-induced coma. Few people can withstand a BAC above 0.45% without resulting in death, and the average person is unable to withstand significantly less without dying.
Level 7: Death
The seventh and final level of drunkenness is death. This results from alcohol poisoning and the body’s inability to process its effects fast enough to keep pace with the level of intoxication. Generally, BAC over 0.40% will possibly lead to death, with anything over 0.45% typically resulting in death as the body begins to shut down.
Risks & Symptoms of Alcohol Intoxication
Several risk factors dictate the likelihood of alcohol intoxication, including:
- Body weight of the individual
- Overall health of the individual
- Amount of food eaten prior to drinking
- Types of alcoholic drinks being consumed
- Rate of alcohol consumption
- Overall amount of alcohol consumption
- Tolerance level of the individual
- Complications from other conditions, such as COVID-19
- Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
Symptoms of alcohol intoxication are serious and can be life-threatening. They include:
- Loss of gag reflex
- Slow or shallow breathing
- Gaps in breathing
- Pale or blue-tinted skin
- Hypothermia (lower than average body temperature)
Blood Alcohol Level Deaths: What to Know
There are several important things to know when it comes to death caused by high BAC levels. These include:
- Binge drinking dramatically increases BAC and the risk of death. Binge drinking is generally considered consuming more than five standard drinks in about two hours for men and four or more for women (a BAC of 0.08 g/dl or above). It is especially dangerous because victims can ingest a fatal dose of alcohol before becoming unconscious or exhibiting typical alcohol poisoning symptoms.
- An individual’s BAC can continue to rise even while the person is unconscious. This is because alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream after drinking has stopped. It is absolutely critical to seek immediate medical help for anyone who has become unconscious due to drinking alcohol.
- Alcohol tolerance, which results in needing increased amounts of alcohol to feel the desired effects, does not affect an individual’s actual BAC levels. This is important to know because those who have conditioned themselves to be able to consume large amounts of alcohol could be at risk for nearing a deadly BAC or alcoholic overdose.
Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction
- Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the option for alcohol addiction treatment. These intensive programs are usually 30, 60, or 90 days but can be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of your stay at an inpatient rehab facility, you will live on site is a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Most programs will will help you set up an aftercare program upon completion.
- Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) — Partial hospitalization programs (also called intensive outpatient programs, or IOPs) are comparable to inpatient programs, but you return home after each session. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. Their services may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. PHPs accept new patients, along with patients who have completed an inpatient treatment program and still require intensive care.
- Outpatient Programs — Outpatient programs are less intensive and offer a more flexible treatment schedule. They are best for people who have responsibilities at work, home, or school and are highly motivated to achieve sobriety. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success, and may also be a part of aftercare program once a patient completes an inpatient or PHP.
- Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) — Certain patients with Alcohol Use Disorder will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Medications can help you detoxify, reduce cravings, and normalize bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT is most effective when combined with other treatment therapies.
- Support Groups — Support groups are peer-led groups that help people stay sober. They can be a first step in overcoming alcoholism or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of them follow the 12-step approach, however there are secular options that don't follow the 12-step approach as well.