By Lauren Smith
Updated: 22 May 2023 & medically reviewed by Dr. Kimberly Langdon
People often protest that certain types of alcohol make us a certain type of drunk. though this is a myth, there are stages of intoxication or "drunkness" that people consuming alcohol go through, some of which can be dangerous.
Table of contents:
What stages of drunk are there?
Anyone who has consumed alcohol or been around people who are familiar with the evolution of a boozy night out, or even a family Christmas. The relaxation that sets in after a few sips; the social lubrication that endears you to friends and strangers; the stage where everything is funny or where dancing is easy. At this point, you might be described as tipsy. but what is the difference between tipsy and drunk?
Tipsy vs drunk
When you’re tipsy, you might feel confident, talkative, relaxed, and a little clumsy. Men usually become tipsy—or buzzed or mellow—after consuming two or three standard drinks in an hour. For women, it’s one to two drinks in an hour.
As your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, things get messier. Speech is slurred, and fine motor skills and coordination are shot. You’re now definitely drunk.
Keep drinking past the point of drunkenness—or take so many shots in a binge you reach this point in a short period of time—and your evening will likely end in the hospital, or worse.
What is intoxication?
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that works by amplifying the effects of the neurotransmitter GABA. Its effects, both wanted and hazardous, are a result of this depression of the brain’s operations and neural activity.
Our liver metabolizes alcohol into harmless water and carbon dioxide, which can be exhaled or excreted into the urine. But the liver can only break down around 0.015 g of ethanol per 100mL of blood per hour. That's around one standard drink or
- one 12-ounce can of beer
- one 5-ounce glass of wine
- one 1.5-ounce shot of liquor
This metabolism can’t be sped up, even if you’ve piled many more grams of ethanol into your body than that. In fact, many people, especially women, metabolize alcohol even more slowly.
What your liver can’t clear right now backs up in your bloodstream and tissue, producing the effects of intoxication. Blood alcohol concentrations can be directly measured or approximated by determining the ethanol content of your breath (a fraction of the ethanol you consume will be expelled, unchanged, in your urine, sweat, and breath).
Types of drunk
Scientific evidence disputes this: ethanol is ethanol. It’s people who change. With inhibitions lowered and judgment blurred, some people become maudlin and teary. Others become amorous or aggressive.
Stages of intoxication by BAC
The anecdotal accounts of intoxication above correspond with scientific evidence linking blood alcohol concentrations to specific symptoms, from talkativeness to respiratory depression.
However, people have different tolerances for alcohol. Some people, especially inexperienced drinkers, may become intoxicated at lower BACs.
- 0.0%: sober. However, you might not blow perfect zeros even if you haven’t had any alcoholic beverage. Very small quantities of alcohol occur naturally in the body and may be present in some foods, particularly those fermented such as kombucha tea, yogurt, and kefir.
- 0.01 - 0.05%: relaxed. You’re suffused with a sense of well-being and warmth.
- 0.05 - 0.08%: tipsy and euphoric. Relaxation is replaced by happiness, even giddiness. You feel more talkative and confident. But already your reaction times are slowed, your judgment impaired, and your emotions (both positive and negative) intensified.
- 0.08: legally impaired. This is the drunk driving limit in most of the US (in Utah it’s 0.05%). You experience euphoria but also drowsiness. Your reasoning, memory, balance, reaction time, vision, and hearing are slightly impaired. At this point you’re drunk.
- 0.8 - 0.15%: excitement. You feel good but you have significant impairment of motor coordination and loss of judgment. Your speech is slurred, and your balance is off.
- 0.15 - 0.19%: sloppy drunk. Your motor control has worsened. Your vision is blurred and your balance is significantly impaired. Euphoria is receding, replaced by nausea dysphoria—a feeling of being unhappy and unwell. Some people are angry and aggressive, others are teary.
- 0.2%: confused. You feel disoriented and dazed. You might need help to walk or stand and may injure yourself but not feel the pain. You may vomit and blackout (lose memory of the event).
- 0.25%: severely impaired, alcohol poisoning. All your mental, physical and sensory functions are impaired. This includes your gag reflex, so if you vomit—which is likely—you may choke on it.
- 0.3%: stupor. You can’t stand or walk. You may not react to what’s going on around you. You may lose consciousness or lose control of your bladder and bowels. You’re also not breathing normally. At this point, you need medical attention.
- 0.35%-0.45%: coma: Your breathing and bodily functions have been so slowed that you’re unresponsive and need immediate medical attention.
- 0.45%: death