Was the first resolution you made last New Year’s Day prompted by the headache and sick feeling you woke up with on January 1st? Maybe you had to deal with the consequences of a holiday car accident. Or was it the fallout from something you did at a party that everyone else remembers all too well, but you don’t?
Many people, whether or not they have problems with alcohol the rest of the year, drink too much over the Christmas and New Years holidays. The same happens on birthdays, graduations, and other social occasions. Some people drink more at these times because they feel lonely, shy, or awkward. Some drink because “friends” push them to drink, or because they think it’s what everyone is expected to do at parties. Some people drink as a social lubricant, which is another way of saying that alcohol releases their inhibitions. Each year over the holidays many people drink themselves – and others – to death through car accidents, suicide, accidental homicide, and murder. People are raped or injured, and rape or injure others, because of alcohol-related bad judgment and loss of inhibitions. Some die from acute alcohol poisoning, which happens when a person drinks a large amount of alcohol in a short time, resulting in brain injury, suppression of breathing and death unless the person is immediately brought to an emergency department. I diagnosed a case of alcohol poisoning in a restaurant last week, and called 911 to send her to the ED.
Why does this happen? One reason is that people don’t realize what a powerful drug alcohol really is. Brain function is impaired after the first drink, which is well before a person begins to feel drunk. The first effects are poor judgment and slow reaction time. Before a person is aware of being at all drunk, they have poor coordination, distorted vision, and disorientation. This is why people are often arrested for drunk driving when they honestly believe they are not drunk. Even when a person doesn’t feel intoxicated, one or two drinks makes it dangerous for them to drive, especially in the dark or on wet or icy roads.
You can get every bit as drunk on beer, wine, or eggnog as you can on rum or vodka. A drink of alcohol is defined as 12 ounces of beer or wine cooler, five ounces of wine (less for heavy wines like sherry), or one-and-a-half ounces of liquor (rum, whiskey, scotch, vodka, tequila). Two drinks within two hours, especially without food, will impair judgment and coordination and raise your blood alcohol levels above the legal limit. It takes just one drink to impair judgment and coordination for older people, for many women, for men who weigh 140 pounds or less, and for anyone who rarely drinks.
You cannot tell how intoxicated someone is by whether he or she appears to be drunk. The best guide to whether persons are impaired is not how they feel or how they look, but how much alcohol they’ve had to drink and over what period of time they drank it. If they have not waited one hour per drink, timing from after the last drink, they are likely to be legally intoxicated and should not drive.
It takes about an hour for the liver to process one drink of alcohol. That means that after four drinks, which many people wouldn’t consider excessive at a party, a person needs to wait four hours after the last drink to be able to drive safely. Do you know anyone who waits that long? Sobering-up methods like cold showers, hot coffee, and fresh air can make a person more alert, but, because they don’t lower the blood alcohol level, they don’t make a person any more sober or help them drive more safely.
If you are hosting a party where alcohol will be served, it is your responsibility not to let anyone who is intoxicated have more alcohol and to keep them from driving. You should either get them home in a cab or put them up overnight. If you aren’t used to taking this responsibility, it may seem strange. If you think about it, though, it’s much better to take care of a friend then to let him or her drive off intoxicated and risk killing him/herself, a pedestrian, or another driver.
If you think alcohol has to be part of a fun night out, ask yourself why. If it wouldn’t be fun with a clear mind, is it really that much fun?
For your safety, consider not drinking at the next party or celebration you go to. If you don’t want to do that, avoid driving if you drink more than one drink. It might be a great start to a sane New Year. All the staff of Baltimore OUTloud wish our readers a safe, happy, healthy and peaceful 2019.
- Eva Hersh is a family physician. Send your comments and questions to her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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