When a person indulges in alcohol, the effects take time to become apparent. Depending on the amount consumed, how quickly it is consumed, and whether or not the person has eaten before drinking, there are predictable stages of alcohol intoxication through which the individual will progress as drinking continues.
A chart from the University of Oklahoma Department of Medicine demonstrates these different stages based on blood alcohol content, or BAC, making it a little easier to see just what increasing levels of drinking will do to the body and the individual’s judgment and behaviors. It’s important to remember that BAC is not going to be the same for each person after the same number of drinks over time. An individual’s size, metabolism, sex, and other factors can change how quickly a person absorbs alcohol and shows the symptoms of these stages of intoxication.
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The Stages of Intoxication
From the legal limit to drive and feeling buzzed to the extremes of alcohol poisoning and death
Stage 1: Sobriety or Subclinical Intoxication
At a BAC of 0.01-0.05 percent, depending on the person, the individual is not going to show signs of intoxication. According to the website Drinking and Driving, this will be the BAC level of an average man after consuming no more than 1 drink over one hour; for women, this is also generally true, except for particularly small individuals (100 pounds or under).
At this stage, the individual’s behavior will most often be normal for that person, or near normal, with no visible intoxication. Nevertheless, at concentrations in this range, there are tests that can still determine whether or not alcohol has been consumed. In addition, depending on the individual, judgment and reaction time may be very slightly impaired.
Stage 2: Euphoria
The second stage of intoxication, referred to as euphoria, occurs between 0.03 and 0.12 BAC, depending on the individual’s characteristics. This generally occurs if a man consumes 2-3 drinks over the course of an hour; for a woman, it’s 1-2 drinks in that time. In this stage, the individual gets animated, talkative, and self-confident. Inhibitions also begin to decline. Most people refer to this stage as being “tipsy.”
Negatively, in this stage, a person’s motor responses experience more significant delay than at lower BAC. Based on information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, attention and judgment decline further, short-term memory and perception are affected, and the person may have a trouble maintaining physical control. As a note, a BAC of 0.08 is considered to be intoxicated in the US, and can warrant an arrest if the person is driving at this BAC.
Stage 3: Excitement
According to the University of Oklahoma Department of Medicine chart, having a BAC of 0.09-0.25 leads into the third stage. Legally intoxicated, the man in this stage has probably had 3-5 drinks within one hour, or 2-4 drinks for a woman. The person begins to experience emotional instability, and loss of coordination is profound. Other symptoms at this stage include:
- Loss of judgment, perception, and memory
- Vision issues, including decreased peripheral vision, blurriness, and delayed glare recovery
- Loss of balance
This is the stage most people recognize as being visibly drunk.
Stage 4: Confusion
A BAC level of 0.18-0.30 percent leads to this stage, which borders on alcohol poisoning after consuming an unreasonable number of drinks in just one hour. The confusion in this stage results in emotional upheaval and extremes. Coordination is markedly impaired, to the extent that the person may not be able to stand up, may stagger if walking, and may be completely confused about what’s going on.
Those in this stage of intoxication are highly likely to forget things that happen to or around them. “Blacking out” without actually passing out can happen at this stage. In addition, a person may not be able to feel pain. This makes the individual more susceptible to severe injury during this stage of intoxication.
Stage 5: Stupor
Stupor can indicate that alcohol poisoning has occurred. As described by College Drinking, with a BAC of 0.25-0.4, an individual who has reached this stage has effectively rendered the body incapable of clearing the toxins generated by alcohol metabolism. Results of alcohol poisoning include:
- Inability to respond to stimuli
- Sitting in a stupor or passing out
- Inability to control body functions: incontinence and vomiting
- Inability to stand or walk
If a person has reached this stage, medical assistance is necessary. The individual could potentially choke on vomit or have breathing problems at this stage, because the gag reflex and respiration are impaired as well.
Stage 6: Coma
A person who has reached 0.35-0.45 BAC is likely to become unconscious and go into a coma. Respiration and circulation are severely depressed, motor response and reflexes are negligible, and the person’s body temperature drops. The person who has reached this stage is at risk of death.
Stage 7: Death
At about 0.45 BAC or above, the person will likely die of respiratory failure due to alcohol poisoning. A BAC of 0.35 can be fatal as well, as mentioned above.
These levels of alcohol consumption are not as difficult to achieve as some might think. Because it takes time for alcohol to have an effect on the body, consuming the large amounts required to reach these BAC levels can occur while the person is still reasonably sober. For this reason, it is important to remember to drink in moderation before things go too far. Because the amount of alcohol needed to reach this state can vary so widely depending on the individual’s metabolism and other factors described at the beginning of this article, what might be a fatal dose for one person may not be for another. Moderation can help prevent a person from finding out.
It is notable that a habitual or chronic drinker may develop a tolerance to the effects of alcohol, and may not show the symptoms of various intoxication stages as readily as those who do not drink often. A study from Alcohol and Alcoholism shows that people admitted to emergency departments with suspected alcohol intoxication had BAC levels varying from 0 to 0.4, and that the degree to which they showed symptoms was at least partly based on their tolerance for alcohol and how regularly they drank.
This creates a high risk not only when it comes to how much the person drinks, but also when it comes to getting sober and then returning to drinking. After a period of sobriety, the individual’s tolerance drops and the large doses the person was accustomed to drinking before sobriety can become dangerous. For this reason, research-based treatment that provides the needed skills and tools to manage alcoholism and maintain sobriety into the future can help people live longer lives with lower risk of relapse.
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