Common types: Beer (5% alcohol), wine (12% alcohol), liquor (40% alcohol)
Standard Serving Sizes:
- Beer: 12 ounces
- Wine: 5 ounces
- Liquor: 1.5 ounces
Note how these standard drink sizes look in a 16-oz red plastic cup:
How does alcohol work in the body?
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream through the digestive system and produces a sedative hypnotic effect. The body can process one standard drink per hour. Alcohol is metabolized by an enzyme produced by the liver, alcohol dehydrogenase. The amout of alcohol in the bloodstream at any given time is referred to as blood alcohol content (BAC).
BAC represents the percentage of alcohol in your bloodstream. A BAC of .10 means 1 part alcohol for every 1,000 parts blood. Binge drinking is defined as having a BAC of .08 or more, which is the legal limit for driving in the US. For men, a .08 is yielded by approximately 5 drinks in any 2-hour period, while for women it is 4 drinks in any 2-hour period.
What happens at different levels of BAC?
Staying safer and preventing negative consequences
If you choose to drink, use these practical tips to avoid a negative experience:
- Pace and space your drinks. Give yourself time to fully absorb each drink into the bloodstream and feel its full effect before deciding to have another. If you drink too fast, you may not have a chance to realize how intoxicated you already are before going further.
- Count your drinks and stick to your limit
- Eat prior to drinking
- Drink water before, during, and after drinking
- Stick with your friends and know how you're getting home. Never leave an intoxicated person alone.
- Avoid drinking while sick, sleep-deprived, stressed, or when taking a medication or other drug
- Call for help if someone needs medical attention
Negative consequences of high-risk alcohol consumption
Drinking in a high-risk way means drinking without utilizing the protective strategies listed above. This puts you at risk for the following negative consequences:
- Impaired cognitive and motor functioning, which may lead to increased likelihood of:
- Accidental injury (i.e. tripping and falling, auto crash)
- Losing important things like keys, wallet, cell phone, etc.
- Disorientation, getting lost, inability to carry oneself safely
- Altered emotional state, which may lead to:
- Verbal altercations
- Physical altercations
- Saying or doing something out of character
- Impaired judgment, which may lead to:
- Increased consumption of alcohol after high levels of intoxication have already been reached
- Behavior that increases risk to self or others
- Behavior that leads to disciplinary or legal consequences
- Decreased productivity due to hangover or time spent drinking
- Social consequences
- Sexual consequences
Wellness factors that affect the impact of alcohol:
Some factors in daily life can alter how alcohol works in the body and increase intoxication to a dangerous level, even when you drink the same amount you always do. These factors include:
- Not having enough to eat. Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream very rapidly on an empty stomach, causing intoxication and impairment more quickly and easily. Having food in the system can help slow the rate of absorption so the symptoms of intoxication are not felt so suddenly. BAC can be 3x higher in someone who had not eaten than for someone who had the same quantity of alcohol with food.
- Being sick
- Taking medication. Alcohol interacts with several common medications, both prescription and over-the-counter. Impairment may be intensified, and with some combinations serious health risks may occur. If you take medications regularly, please speak with your prescriber about these risks.
- Being sleep-deprived
- Feeling stress
- Losing weight
Signs of alcohol poisoning:
If you are with anyone who shows any of the following symptoms after consuming alcohol, call for help immediately at (215) 573-3333. Not all symptoms have to be present simultaneously for the individual to be at risk. If you have questions about Penn's Medical Amnesty Policy, please click here.
- Vomiting repeatedly
- Being unable to walk and also vomiting
- Slowed heart rate
- Slowed breathing
- Cold, clammy skin
Frequently Asked Questions
Drinking alcohol may make you crave greasy, salty food because of nausea, depletion of energy, and dehydration. But it won't actually help you sober up.
Once you drink, the body will process about 1 drink per hour, regardless of what kind of food you ate. The key is to make sure you are eating a normal amount before drinking. Having food in your system helps to slow down the rate at which the alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream in the first place, so the effects don't "hit you" as quickly. Any kind of balanced, substantial meal will do, and snacks during drinking help, too. Take a look at Harvard's Healthy Plate nutritionally-accurate guidelines to learn what a balanced meal is.