Skip to main content


Wellness Center
Hughes hall, Room 105

Pritma "Mickey" Irizarry
Director, Wellness Center

Wellness Center
4400 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20018-8067

Understanding Alcohol


What Kind of Substance is Alcohol?

Alcohol is classified as a depressant, and acts by slowing down your central nervous system, and causing impairment in your motor coordination, reaction time as well as your judgment and reasoning. Ingesting high amounts of alcohol can cause your respiratory system to slow down drastically and could potentially cause a coma or death.

Mixing with Caffeine
One trend among drinkers is the mixing of alcohol with products that contain caffeine or energy drink ingredients, such as guarana or taurine. Combining caffeine and alcohol can cause an "awake drunk" effect which produces a more energetic, alert feeling. This can lead to dangerous behaviors such as driving drunk or engaging in other risky behaviors.

Additionally, this mixture increases the risk of alcohol poisoning by causing a "less drunk" feeling, potentially resulting in the drinking of  more alcohol for longer periods of time. Moreover, alcohol and caffeine can lead to higher levels of dehydration, as well as rapid increases in heart rate and blood pressure.

Mixing with Depressants
It is particularly dangerous to mix alcohol with other depressants, such as marijuana, drugs like Rohypnol or Ketamine, as well as tranquilizers or sleeping pills. Combining depressants multiplies the effects of both drugs and can lead to memory loss, coma or death.


How Does Alcohol Move Through the Body?

Once swallowed, alcohol enters the stomach and moves to the small intestine, where it is absorbed directly into the bloodstream. Alcohol does not digest in the stomach like most foods or liquids;it goes straight into your bloodstream. Approximately 20% of the alcohol is absorbed through the stomach, while the remaining 80% is absorbed through the small intestine. Once in the bloodstream, alcohol is quickly distributed evenly throughout the body affecting every system and many organs, including the brain.

Alcohol is metabolized and broken down by enzymes in the liver. The most important point to remember is that the liver can only process one ounce of 80-proof liquor (or one standard drink) in one hour. Drinking more than this, will result in your system becoming saturated, and the additional alcohol will accumulate in the blood and body tissues until it can be metabolized. This is why having a lot of shots or playing drinking games can result in a high blood alcohol concentration that lasts for several hours. Be sure to check out our definition of “One Standard Drink”.


What is “One Standard Drink”?

Since not everyone measures out or uses a standard drink size when drinking, then most college students probably do not measure the amount of alcohol in a cupful (i.e. red solo cup). It is important to remember that ‘1 drink’ is not one cupful -- it is how much alcohol is actually in what you are drinking. Knowing how to count a standard drink is necessary for understanding how much alcohol is in your body and to correctly calculate the BAC or blood alcohol concentration. Refer to the photograph depicted below for guidance.

  • Beer
    One drink = one 12-ounce beer or the second line from the top of a red solo cup. This is normal-strength beer (5% alcohol). Micro-brews and malt liquor have a higher percentage of alcohol (check the label).
  • Wine
    One drink = 5 ounces of standard wine or the second line from the bottom of a red solo cup. This is most table wines: white, red.
  • Liquor
    One drink = 1.5 ounces of liquor (40% alcohol or 80 proof) or the bottom line of a red solo cup. This is how much whiskey, vodka, gin, etc. is in a measured mixed drink or in a standard-size shot glass. Remember that mixed drinks may not be measured and often contain far more than 1.5 ounces of alcohol. Drinks with a higher proof (like grain alcohol, Everclear, or 151 proof rum) should be treated with caution.
  • Jungle Juice
    One drink = WHO KNOWS!? Jungle juice is a combination of various liquors (i.e. everclear, vodka) fruit juice, water and may or may not contain chunks of liquor soaked fruit. The concoction consists of upwards of 20% alcohol, though this is not a confirmed measurement. Generally, the assumption is that one cupful is equal to 5 or 6 shots is equal to 5 or 6 drinks. This can be a dangerous mixture to ingest as each mixture varies depending on the ingredients.


Knowing Your Blood Alcohol Content

Understanding BAC is key to understanding how alcohol affects your body and how too much can lead to an alcohol emergency. BAC measures the ratio of alcohol in the blood. So, a BAC of .10 means one part alcohol for every 1000 parts of blood.

  • Tolerance
    Tolerance is the lessening of the effectiveness of a drug after a period of prolonged or heavy use of that drug. For drinking alcohol, tolerance masks the feeling of being drunk or buzzed. Those, who develop a high tolerance, will need more and more alcohol to feel the same type of buzz felt when they first began drinking. This can be misleading, since your BAC will always reflect the number of drinks in your blood, regardless of how you drunk or buzzed you feel.
  • What’s Your BAC?
    To calculate your BAC, select the appropriate chart** -- and then find the row with your approximate weight. Then select the number of drinks consumed. This BAC figure would result if the total number of drinks were consumed in one hour. Since your liver takes 1 hour to metabolize 1 standard drink, be sure to subtract .015 from your BAC each hour after drinking.

    BAC estimators:
  • Pick up a wallet-sized BAC card, available at The Wellness Center, McCabe Hall, 1st Floor;
  • Use an Online Estimator at University of Washington Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

** BAC charts are intended to provide a general guideline for you. Every person reacts differently to alcohol and additional aspects such as body composition, use of medication or other drugs, mood changes as well as metabolism should be factored.


Effects of blood alcohol content on thinking, feeling and behavior:

Now that you know how to calculate BAC, see how alcohol affects your body at different levels.

0.02-0.03   - Slight euphoria, loss of shyness

0.04-0.06   - Feeling of relaxation, lower inhibitions, minor impairment of reasoning and memory, lowering of cautions.

0.07-0.09   - Slight impairment of balance, speech & reaction time,
 judgment reduced, reason impaired

0.10-0.125   - Significant impairment of motor coordination and loss of good judgment, slurred speech; balance & reaction time impaired.

0.13-0.15   - Gross motor impairment & lack of physical control, blurred vision, loss of balance; anxiety, judgment and perception are severely impaired.

0.16-0.19   - Nausea & more anxiety, appears as “sloppy” drunk

0.20-0.24   - Disoriented, needs help to stand, walk, some have nausea & vomiting, blackouts likely.

0.25-0.29   - Mental, physical and sensory functions severely impaired risk of serious injury.

0.30-0.34   - Stupor, little comprehension, may pass out, hard to awaken.

0.35+   - Coma and/or death possible.


What Factors Affect Your Response to Alcohol

  • Food
    Having food (especially high fat and high protein foods such as chicken or cheese) in your stomach can delay the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream. The food will slow the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, where alcohol is very rapidly absorbed. If the stomach is empty, alcohol can reach the small intestines in five minutes before being absorbed directly into the bloodstream.
  • Drugs/Medication
    Mixing drugs and alcohol can interfere with several of the liver’s responsibilities. If you take medication and alcohol is introduced, the liver will delay the breakdown of everything except the alcohol. As a result your Central Nervous System can be subjected to the effects of both drugs simultaneously or cause a cumulative toxic effect when the next dose of medication is taken.
  • Physical and Emotional State
    Body chemistry can unpredictably affect the absorption rate of alcohol, and symptoms of fatigue and stress will be worsened by alcohol intoxication. Always remember that alcohol is a depressant, and will act as such.
  • Biological Sex
    There are several biological and physiological differences that can impact a person’s reaction to alcohol. In general, females are more quickly affected by alcohol. Even if individuals of the same size drink the same amount of alcohol, a female will feel the effects of alcohol more quickly and stronger than a male. Check out our section How Alcohol Affects Us Based on Our Biological Sex for further information.


How Alcohol Affects You Based on Your Biological Sex

Ability to dilute alcohol
Females have less water in their body system compared to male (52% for females, 61% for males). As a result females have less water to dilute the alcohol, lead to faster intoxication compared to males.

Ability to metabolize alcohol
Within your stomach and liver there is an enzyme called dehydrogenase which helps rid the body of alcohol. Females produce LESS of this enzyme than males.

Hormonal factors
Hormonal changes can cause a quicker rate of intoxication during the days right before a female gets her period. Birth control pills or other medication with estrogen will slow down the rate at which alcohol is eliminated from the body.


How Can I Drink Responsibly?

If you choose to drink, the best way to be safe is moderation. The following tips are a starting point for you to drink more responsibly:

  • Eat food before going out and continue to snack throughout the night.
  • Start out slowly by sipping your drink, counting your drinks or even pacing yourself to one or two drinks per hour.
  • Avoid drinking games or shots. Drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time is the most likely way to become dangerously intoxicated.
  • Give yourself time to sober up. Taking a shower, drinking coffee or exercising will NOT sober you up. The only solution is time.
  • Drink water to keep yourself hydrated. Drinking only alcohol will cause you to be dehydrated and lead to a hangover the following day.


What is a Hangover and Can I Prevent It?

A hangover is your body’s reaction to poisoning and withdrawal -- a common result of overindulging in alcohol. Symptoms that can occur include headache, fatigue, thirst, nervousness as well as possible nausea and abdominal cramping.

There are many different things that are considered the cure for a hangover. Here are a few myths that do NOT help to cure hangovers: 

  • Drinking alcohol the next day only puts more alcohol in your body and prolongs the effects of alcohol intoxication.
  • Drinking caffeine will continue to lower your blood sugar and dehydrate you even more.

Here are few suggestions that may help to cure a hangover:

  • When you wake up, it's important to eat a healthy meal. Processing alcohol causes low blood sugar and not eating can worsen the effects.
  • Drink plenty of water and juice to get rehydrated.

Please note: Alcoholics report fewer hangovers than drinkers who are non-alcoholic; this may be because they have learned to ignore the symptoms.


What is the Difference Between a Blackout and Passing Out?

"Blackouts" (referred to as alcohol-related memory loss) occur when people have no memory of what happened while intoxicated. They can last from a few hours to several days. During a blackout, someone may appear fine to others; however, the next day they cannot remember parts of the night and what they did. The cause of blackouts is not well understood but may involve the interference of short-term memory storage, deep seizures, or in some cases, psychological depression.

A blackout is not the same thing as "passing out," which happens when people lose consciousness from drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. Losing consciousness means that the person has reached an extremely dangerous level of intoxication; they could choke on their vomit or slip into a coma. If someone has passed out, call Public Safety (202) 885-2527 seek immediate medical attention.


When a Friend Has Had Too Much

Sometimes as a friend you may need to have the courage to step in and help someone who is drinking dangerous. It is important to know how to size up a scene and help care for a drunken friend. Be sure to review the section on How to Drink Responsibly for additional tips.

Signs of an Alcohol Emergency
Alcohol poisoning is serious, and can be fatal. College students die every year from alcohol poisoning. Therefore the signs that indicate this type of alcohol emergency are something every college student should be aware and understand.

To make sure you're being safe understand the signs of an alcohol emergency:

  • Heavy vomiting, vomiting while passed out;
  • Slow, shallow or irregular breathing;
  • Unresponsive or unable to communicate, slurring speech;
  • Violent or threatening;
  • Cold, clammy or blue skin; especially around the
  • Loss of bodily control;
  • Unable to stand or walk.

If you think a friend is having an alcohol emergency but you are not sure what to do, contact Public Safety.

Alcohol emergencies require immediate medical attention. Be sure to have the Public Safety phone number, (202) 885-2527, for quick access to help on campus.