Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in almost every country in the world. In fact, alcohol abuse and complications from alcohol addiction are the number one causes of premature death worldwide. In the United States, as many as 50 million people struggle with the disease of alcoholism. This includes men and women from as young as 12 to as old as 100. While there are certain genetic predispositions and other complicating factors, the truth is nobody is truly immune from the risk of alcohol addiction. In addition, even if someone does not experience prolonged drinking to the point of a disease, someone’s life can change drastically just from one instance of drunkenness.
Unlike say prescription drug addiction, alcoholism is a disease It can affect every single part of the physical body, endanger relationships and add to mental health concerns. The severity of alcohol addiction varies from person to person, but the risks associated with alcohol are universal. While some alcohol in moderation can have health benefits, aid in relaxation, or help jumpstart a social situation, alcohol use is not to be taken lightly.
A healthy, average-sized adult will typically feel the effects of a “normal” alcoholic beverage in 10-30 minutes. This, of course, varies by the alcoholic content of the drink. An average beer has an alcohol content of 5%-7%, while an average glass of wine has an alcohol content (“abv”) of 18%-20%. Various liquors (whiskey, vodka, etc) range from 35%-40%. These numbers indicate the amount of alcohol it takes to achieve a similar effect. For example, it would take 7-8 times more beer to equal the amount of alcohol in a similarly sized liquor.
Blood alcohol content (BAC) is the percentage of our blood that contains alcohol. The legal limit varies by state but is usually around .05%. This is the level that an average-sized male will begin to exhibit some characteristics of intoxication (slurred speech, blurred vision, slowed reaction time). At.07%, the average person will exhibit extreme impairment and obvious outward signs of intoxication. These numbers are different for women based on several physiological factors, such as generally higher body fat content. An average-sized woman (150 lbs) will reach intoxication and high BAC much faster than men.
Alcohol works quickly and can begin to cause changes in behavior in as little as 10 minutes. Processing of alcohol takes place mainly in the liver and this can begin in 20 minutes. The liver can metabolize one ounce of alcohol every hour on average. It takes around five hours for someone around the legal driving limit to flush the alcohol from their system. Intoxication occurs when the speed of intake overtakes the body’s ability to metabolize the alcohol. Alcohol will stay in urine for up to 8- hours and can be present in hair follicles for as long as 3 months.
Alcohol is absorbed by the whole body and processed in the liver, but the brain is the area where the function is most impaired. Alcohol slows the transfer of information in the brain by inhibiting neuroreceptors. Some of the stages of alcohol intoxication are described as follows.
This stage occurs with a BAC between .01 and .05. While outward symptoms may not be obvious (depending on the person), reaction time, judgment, and behavior are all at least slightly altered. Depending on the size of the person, this can happen after only one drink.
Alcohol triggers the release of the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the chemical most often associated with pleasure. During the euphoric stage of intoxication, you may feel like you don’t have a care in the world. This is commonly referred to as “tipsy”. While it may seem fun, your reasoning, memory, and self-preservation will all be impaired. This stage occurs with a BAC from .03 to .10.
This stage represents legal intoxication and beyond and can present serious health risks through harmful behaviors and physiological changes. BAC in this stage is between .09 and .25. This level of alcohol consumption affects the brain’s occipital lobe, temporal lobe. This can affect the function of each individual part of the brain and cause a lack of control, risky behavior, blurry vision, and many other impairments. This stage can also be marked by mood swings, anger, and nausea.
This stage occurs with a BAC between .2 and .3 and is marked by disorientation. The cerebellum (area of the brain that controls coordination) is impacted severely and as a result, walking or even standing becomes difficult. It is also possible or even common to lose consciousness at this stage, which is known as a blackout. This will in turn result in loss of short-term memory and recollection of the incident. Sensations, such as pain, will also be transmitted slower thus increasing the likelihood of injury.
Reaching a BAC over .25-.3 often results in serious side effects. At this stage, one may have “alcohol poisoning” that can result in a hangover lasting hours or even days. Usually, vomiting occurs and all sensory functions are impaired or severely limited. The risk of losing consciousness is high.
With a BAC over .35, the risk of going into a coma is high. This occurs due to extremely slowed respiration, circulation, and motor responses. A BAC this high is a result of prolonged, extreme alcohol consumption and presents serious long and short-term health risks, including death.
A BAC over .45 may cause death due to various factors. Alcohol poisoning, stroke, heart attack, and complete loss of brain function can all occur.
Alcohol has so much effect on the body because it does not get digested in the digestive tract like other edible materials. Upon entering the gastrointestinal tract, a large portion of alcohol consumed goes straight into the bloodstream. Once it reaches the bloodstream, it will shortly make its way to the brain, causing impairment.
The absorption rate will vary by person and depends on how much food is in someone’s stomach. A full stomach will lead to a slower rate of alcohol absorption as the food soaks up some alcohol along the way. Food will absorb alcohol or inhibit contact with the stomach lining, thus slowing the transit of the alcohol into the duodenum (a portion of the small intestine). The duodenum will absorb alcohol very quickly into the bloodstream, and in turn the brain.
How long alcohol can be detected in someone’s system relies on several factors, including the person’s size and the test used. Most law enforcement use BAC “breathalyzer tests” to measure the level of alcohol in someone’s breath. These tests function by measuring the amount of alcohol present in your breath as it reacts to air and water.
Breath tests can measure alcohol present for as long as 12-24 hours. The amount of alcohol detected will generally start to decrease approximately an hour after consuming alcohol. If you consume one drink, your BAC should return to zero after one hour. After two drinks, it may take two hours to sober up, etc.
Traces of alcohol can be present in the blood for 6-24 hours. Generally, impairment will subside after alcohol leaves the bloodstream. An average night of drinking (2-3 drinks) will see the blood clear of alcohol is an average of 6 hours.
Alcohol can be detected by other means for significantly longer than the standard breath test. Alcohol can remain present in urine for 24-48 hours or longer with advanced detection methods. Alcohol is present in saliva for 12-36 hours. Finally, alcohol can be present in hair samples for up to 90 days.
Alcoholism can be tough to recognize, even in someone you know well. Because alcohol is widely available and socially acceptable, it can be difficult to notice overuse. Alcohol is often at the center of social situations and celebratory engagements. Because alcohol is so common, it can be difficult to discern between someone who has an addiction or simply enjoys a few drinks every once in a while. However, there are some symptoms to look out for that can help someone recognize alcohol addiction:
Treating alcoholism can be difficult and complex. In order for treatment to be a success, the person suffering from the addiction must want to get better. Nobody can make the decision to get sober for them. Treatment is a long-term investment that requires work and hardship before success can be achieved.
Alcohol rehabilitation comes in different shapes and sizes but is generally done at a rehab facility either full-time (inpatient) or part-time (outpatient). An inpatient treatment program can last anywhere from weeks to a year and is usually reserved for patients with a higher level of addiction. This could also include detoxification. Outpatient treatment provides for additional flexibility and is generally used in cases with a lower level of addiction. Both types of rehabilitation will include counseling, group therapy, and accountability.
Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, can also play a huge role in recovery. These groups bring people with similar stories together to help support and encourage one another. There are usually mentoring and spiritual aspects as well.
If you or someone you love are dealing with the effects of alcoholism, contact Chapel Hill Detox today. Our beautiful facilities feature professional and compassionate staff, various treatment options, and board-certified physicians. Let us help you begin the journey to recovery.