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Short Term Effects of Alcohol

A man with hangover as the most common short-term effects of alcohol

Published: June 11, 2024

Many Americans enjoy a drink or two at a weekend outing or after a stressful day of work. In fact, alcohol consumption plays a large role in socialization in the U.S. Enjoying an alcoholic drink here and there is no cause for concern, but it’s important to understand the dangers alcohol can pose.

While you may be familiar with the danger of the long-term effects of alcohol, the short-term effects of alcohol are often overlooked or written off as a normal experience, but the reality is these effects can be incredibly dangerous. That’s why it is vital to know how to avoid dangerous drinking habits.

Keep reading to learn about the short-term effects of alcohol consumption, the health risks it can pose, and ways to encourage safety around drinking.

How Alcohol Affects the Body in the Short-Term

In order to understand how alcohol affects your body in the short term, it’s necessary to understand alcohol absorption and how your body processes alcohol.

When you drink alcohol, it enters your stomach and intestines and is absorbed into your bloodstream where it is carried to all of your organs. Once alcohol is in your bloodstream, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC), the level of alcohol in your blood, begins to rise.

BAC often correlates with the way you feel or the effects you are experiencing from alcohol consumption. That being said, not everyone will feel the same at the same BAC. In other words, you can feel sober with a BAC that may make another person feel very drunk.

Generally, BAC levels create the following effects:

  • .01-.03: Most people don’t feel much from this BAC level. You may notice an elevation in your mood.
  • .04-.06: You may feel relaxed and warm. Your reasoning and memory may be slightly impaired.
  • .07-.09: You may notice your vision, speech, and balance are mildly impaired. It is illegal to operate a vehicle at .08 or higher.
  • .10-.12: You may notice slurred speech, impaired judgment, and impaired coordination.
  • .13-.15: You may notice a lack of balance, lack of motor control, blurred vision, or anxiety and restlessness.
  • .16-.20: Most people are visibly drunk at this level and may experience nausea.
  • .25-.30: You may experience nausea, vomiting, severe confusion, and need help walking.
  • .35-.40: Most people lose consciousness or risk entering a coma at this level.
  • .40+: Coma and death are likely at this level.

It’s important to note that you may not be aware of your BAC as it feels different for everyone. Additionally, your BAC can rise rapidly even after you stop drinking if there’s still alcohol in your stomach and intestines. Factors such as your age, sex, health conditions, and the amount of alcohol you drink can affect your BAC.

Eventually, alcohol reaches the liver, where it is processed by an enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase, made by the liver cells. Some alcohol is also eliminated from your body via your sweat, breath, and urine.

Immediate Physical Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol can have immediate physical effects on many parts of your body. You may notice some of these effects while others can go unnoticed.

Central Nervous System

The central nervous system (CNS) refers to your brain and spinal cord. The effects of alcohol on the CNS are some of the most apparent as the people around you may notice them too. CNS effects can include impaired coordination, reaction times, and balance. Alcohol can also affect speech.

The reason for this is alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down bodily functions, including brain activity. When you become impaired from alcohol, you may experience the above effects as a result of the alcohol slowing down your brain’s communication.

Gastrointestinal System

The gastrointestinal system includes your mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, intestines, rectum, anus, liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. Many people are familiar with the effects of alcohol on the gastrointestinal system as they include nausea, vomiting, heartburn, gastritis, and even ulcers with repeated use. Alcohol causes inflammation in the gastrointestinal system and interferes with its regular processes by impacting stomach acid production, causing the above effects.

Cardiovascular System

The less frequently discussed effects of alcohol are those on the cardiovascular system, your heart, and blood vessels. Alcohol can increase levels of cortisol, affect your heart rate, and cause high blood pressure. In large amounts, this can lead to issues such as stroke.

General Well-Being

Alcohol can also have immediate effects on your general well-being including your immune health and sleep hygiene. Simply put, alcohol weakens your immune system and can make you more susceptible to infections for up to 24 hours.

In a similar vein, alcohol is notorious for causing sleep disruptions, which can exacerbate a weakened immune system. Many people experience a decrease in the quality of their sleep when they drink alcohol. Additionally, it can negatively impact your sleep cycles, specifically rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – the deepest phase of sleep.

Cognitive and Psychological Effects of Alcohol

Aside from the physical effects, alcohol can also affect your cognitive and psychological functions. This can include impaired judgment, impaired memory, and mood changes.

Most people know alcohol can impair your decision-making skills. Alcohol lowers your inhibition, which can cause poor judgment and decision-making. Many people find they are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors when they drink. This can cause people to end up in dangerous situations and environments.

Alcohol is also famous for affecting the memory. Many people experience short-term memory loss when intoxicated and in severe cases, people may have blackouts, which are essentially missing pieces of time in their memory.

Finally, alcohol can cause mood changes for a lot of people. Depending on the individual, and how much alcohol they’ve consumed, people can experience euphoria, depression, anxiety, or even aggression when they drink. Mood changes can come on suddenly, especially as you continue to drink. Over time, this can affect your mental health.

Social and Behavioral Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol is also commonly associated with social and behavioral changes. For some people, the social and behavioral effects can be enticing, or even the reason they choose to drink. However, it’s important to highlight how these effects can be hazardous.

As mentioned above, alcohol lowers your inhibitions. This can cause many people to be more social and outgoing. Increased sociability can cause people to engage in social interactions they may not engage in otherwise.

On the flip side, however, alcohol can increase the risk of engaging in harmful behaviors. This is yet again a result of lowered inhibitions. Poor judgment skills and elevated moods can cause people to engage in risky behaviors such as drunk driving, committing violence, or getting involved in various types of accidents.

The above effects can also directly create legal and safety concerns. Short-term threats to your safety and the safety of others are associated with alcohol consumption and intoxication for a reason.

First, drinking alcohol can sometimes lead to drunk driving, and in turn, getting arrested and charged with driving under the influence (DUI). It can be a nightmare to deal with the legal consequences and create safety risks for many people.

Another legal risk associated with alcohol consumption is public intoxication. Public intoxication refers to being under the influence of a controlled substance in a public space without the ability to exercise care for yourself or others. Getting arrested for public intoxication can have many legal implications and social consequences.

Short-Term Health Risks

While the effects of alcohol on their own can pose dangers, it’s important to also become familiar with the short-term health risks associated with drinking alcohol. Some are minor, while others can be life-threatening.

Alcohol Poisoning

The most dangerous short-term health risk of alcohol consumption is alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning is a condition that occurs when your BAC is so high that it shuts down parts of your brain, prohibiting life-saving functions. It is caused by excessive drinking in a short period of time.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include:

  • Confusion
  • Seizures
  • Slow heart rate
  • Slow breathing or irregular breathing
  • Unconsciousness
  • Incontinence
  • Lack of gag reflex
  • Lack of coordination
  • Hypothermia
  • Blue-tinged skin or paleness
  • Clammy skin
  • Inability to wake up or stay awake
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Low body temperature
  • Slurred speech
  • Dulled responses

Alcohol poisoning is a life-threatening condition that requires emergency response. Without medical attention, it can cause respiratory depression, brain damage, coma, asphyxiation, or death.

It is vital to seek medical care as soon as possible for alcohol poisoning. Healthcare professionals may offer medical treatments such as IV fluids, stomach pumping, oxygen therapy, or blood filtration.

Dehydration and Electrolyte Imbalances

Other short-term health effects associated with alcohol are dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, which increases urine production and water excretion.

Dehydration occurs when you don’t have enough water in your body for it to function properly. Symptoms include thirst, dark urine, headache, dry mouth, muscle cramps, and decreased urine excretion. Drinking fluids can help treat dehydration, but medical attention may be necessary in severe cases.

Closely tied with dehydration are electrolyte imbalances. When urine production and water excretion are increased, your body also loses electrolytes, which can cause electrolyte imbalances. Electrolytes are important for many bodily functions and also help keep you hydrated.

Symptoms of electrolyte imbalances include nausea, vomiting, confusion, irritability, fatigue, fast heart rate, constipation, diarrhea, numbness, muscle cramps, and headaches. Treatment can include drinking beverages that contain electrolytes or IV fluids, medication, or dialysis in severe cases.

Hangovers

Arguably the most common short-term health problem experienced with alcohol consumption is hangovers. All of the dehydration, inflammation, poor sleep, and other effects of alcohol are causes of a hangover.

Symptoms can include nausea, headache, dizziness, anxiety, sweating, increased blood pressure, fatigue, weakness, stomach pain, thirst, and light and sound sensitivity.

There are ways to prevent the development of a hangover, which we’ll cover below.

Immediate Interventions and Safety Measures

There are many ways to prevent and mitigate the short-term risks associated with drinking.

First, it’s important to be able to identify the signs and symptoms of overconsumption. Doing so can prevent further intoxication and alcohol poisoning. Some of the first signs of alcohol intoxication include slurred speech, impaired judgment, impaired motor skills, impaired vision, loss of balance, nausea, and vomiting. If you notice these signs in yourself or others, encourage them to stop drinking to prevent further intoxication.

That being said, life-threatening situations can still present themselves. If you notice someone exhibiting signs of alcohol poisoning or severe intoxication, it can be immensely beneficial to have basic first aid skills in your back pocket and know how to contact emergency services.

Finally, there are several preventative strategies you can enact when drinking. This includes drinking in moderation, pacing drinks, and staying hydrated.

A good rule of thumb is to stick to one or fewer alcoholic drinks per hour. This can help you avoid binge drinking. It’s also a good idea to avoid drinking games or anything that encourages heavy drinking in short periods of time. Another great prevention strategy is to alternate alcohol and water throughout the night to discourage dehydration.

All of this being said, if you are worried you or a loved one is engaging in alcohol abuse or has an alcohol use disorder, it may be necessary to seek out professional help.

Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment Near You

Alcohol has countless short-term effects, many of which can be dangerous. It’s important to take precautions when consuming alcohol and practice healthy drinking habits. If you have more questions about the effects of alcohol or alcohol dependence, don’t hesitate to give our helpline a call today.

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