Alcohol

Alcohol Facts

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:

redcup.jpg

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:

  • Blackout
  • Hangover
  • Vomiting
  • 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
  • Incoherence
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slowed breathing
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Unconsciousness

Frequently Asked Questions

Will caffeine sober me up?Actually, no. It's a myth that a cup of coffee will help you "sober up." The only thing that sobers you up is time. Caffeine increases risk by masking the intoxicating effects of the alcohol, so your body's natural signals that you've had too much are impaired. In other words, you may not feel as drunk as you actually are. This can mislead you into thinking it's safe to drink more. Also, caffeine is a diuretic, which will make your hangover feel worse.

Will greasy food soak up the alcohol from my bloodstream? No. There is nothing that can "soak up" alcohol from the bloodstream.

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.

Is tolerance a good thing?Tolerance is commonly described as "holding your liquor." The higher your tolerance, the more alcohol you need to achieve the same desired effect. But this is not actually healthy. You still have the BAC yielded by the amount of alcohol you consumed, even if you don't feel very intoxicated. So if it previously took you 2 drinks to feel buzzed and now it takes you 4 to feel the same thing, you are drinking to a higher BAC than before, even if you don't feel more drunk. Also, your body has a greater task in processing more alcohol, which can have a negative impact on your immune system and cognitive functioning. Increasing tolerance is one of the two main signs of abuse or dependence. If you cut down on your quantity or pacing of drinks, your tolerance will reduce over time.

If I am stressed out or celebrating something, is it ok to drink more than normal?You don't get special drinking powers just because it's a special occasion or you've had a hard week. The way alcohol works in the body is a science. What works for you is still what will work for you, and what doesn't work is still not going to work. If you feel tempted to have more than your norm, remind yourself that there is a big difference between an extra drink and several extra drinks. Pace yourself and monitor how intoxicated you feel. Ask yourself if it's worth it to risk ruining the night with negative consequences. And if you are feeling distressed, alcohol can intensify those feelings and make you feel worse. Please view these resources to find places to get help.