What Is Intoxication?

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What Is Intoxication?

Intoxication is a state in which a person has consumed enough alcohol or drugs that their mood and physical and mental abilities are noticeably affected. For example, a person has reached the point of alcohol intoxication when the alcohol produces mental or physical impairments, such as slurred speech, difficulty walking, or disorientation.

In addition to observable symptoms, intoxication is also distinguishable through tests, such as a breathalyzer or blood test.

Symptoms of Intoxication

Symptoms of intoxication can range from mild to severe. Reaching a state of intoxication depends on how much of a substance a person consumes, how quickly they ingest it, and how fast it is metabolized by their body.

Specific symptoms of intoxication may vary depending on the substance that was ingested. However, some of the common symptoms of alcohol intoxication include:

  • Ataxia: Ataxia refers to impaired walking. An intoxicated person may be unable to walk a straight line or repeatedly stumble.
  • Confusion and lethargy: Intoxication causes people to become disoriented and extremely fatigued.
  • Euphoria: While intoxicated, people may experience elation, become very talkative, and engage in behaviors they would not normally perform. 
  • Loss of inhibitions: After just a couple of drinks, people may feel more relaxed, more open, and less self-conscious.
  • Poor judgment: Intoxication can lead people to make poor decisions and engage in risky behaviors such as driving under the influence.
  • Speech problems: Slurred speech and other speech difficulties are also common symptoms of intoxication.
  • Vomiting: As a result of intoxication, people may vomit as their body tries to rid itself of the substance in their system.

Other signs of intoxication can include decreased attention, diminished senses, changes in mood and emotion, and feelings of relaxation. When intoxication is severe, it can lead to a loss of consciousness or even death.

Every person is affected by alcohol and other substances differently. Some people may show effects quickly, while people who have a higher tolerance may have to take more of a substance in order to exhibit symptoms of intoxication.

Diagnosis of Intoxication

Diagnosing intoxication often involves observing a person's behavior, a physical exam, and verification of events by others. It can also involve the use of breath or blood tests to measure alcohol levels in the body.

In a legal sense, a person is considered intoxicated with alcohol if their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 or higher. BAC is a measurement of the amount of alcohol in a person's system. It is influenced by a person's weight, how much alcohol they drank, and how quickly the alcohol was consumed. 

It is important to note that symptoms of intoxication don't always correlate with BAC levels. Some people may not feel or act intoxicated because of their tolerance level, but they will still have BAC levels over the legal limit.

Recap

How intoxicated a person feels is not an accurate measure of how intoxicated they are in a legal sense. In other words, a person might feel sober enough to drive even though they would fail a breathalyzer test if they were pulled over by law enforcement.

Causes of Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication is caused when alcohol and its metabolites enter the bloodstream faster than the liver can metabolize them. It is a temporary state that can result in neurological, gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular effects. 

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) is the intoxicating substance in wine, beer, and liquor. Ethanol is responsible for intoxication because it has a depressive impact on parts of the brain. As more alcohol is ingested, the ethanol takes greater effect, causing impairments in progressive order.

Many factors impact intoxication. A large proportion of the ethanol in liquor is absorbed into the blood from the stomach and the rest from the small intestine. The longer alcohol stays in the stomach, the longer it takes to be absorbed, lowering the rate of intoxication.

Some people are more prone to intoxication than others. For instance, someone who regularly drinks heavily may be able to ingest much larger quantities without being intoxicated than someone who rarely drinks. Other factors impacting intoxication include:

  • Medications: Certain medications can enhance the effect of alcohol and increase intoxication. Sedative drugs, such as those for anxiety or mood disorders, can be extremely dangerous if combined with alcohol.
  • Medical conditions: Certain medical conditions can make people more susceptible to intoxication. Before drinking, people should talk to a healthcare provider about potential risks and how much alcohol is considered safe.

Health Effects of Intoxication

Intoxication can have a number of detrimental health effects. In the case of alcohol, intoxication can lead to alcohol poisoning, increase the risk of vehicle accidents, and can increase a person's risk for conditions such as cancer and cardiovascular problems.

Alcohol intoxication is a common cause of emergency room visits in the United States. It can also result in substance intoxication delirium, a type of delirium that is induced by consuming alcohol and other substances.

If you experience intoxication regularly, it may be a sign that you have an alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder.

Treatment for Intoxication

Alcohol intoxication is usually treated with support and care as the body processes alcohol. In many cases, symptoms of intoxication will gradually decrease as alcohol is metabolized and eliminated from a person's system.

If a person is showing symptoms of alcohol poisoning, emergency services should be contacted immediately. Symptoms of this condition include cool skin, confusion, loss of consciousness, hypothermia, irregular heartbeat, and seizures.

Treatment for alcohol poisoning includes observing vital signs, administering oxygen, and providing IV fluids. In some cases, a person may have their stomach pumped to remove alcohol before it can be absorbed or they may be given activated charcoal to minimize further alcohol absorption.

Coping With Intoxication

When someone is experiencing intoxication, there are strategies that can help them cope and remain safe. Ensuring the individual's immediate safety is essential, but supportive care as they gradually recover from intoxication is also important.

  • Supervision: A person should always stay with a trusted sober person while intoxicated. Supervision can ensure that they are safe, cannot be hurt by someone else, and have access to help if it is needed.
  • Eat something and drink plenty of water: Staying hydrated and having something to eat helps prevent dehydration and can lessen some of alcohol's detrimental effects. Eating and drinking during recovery can also help relieve the aftereffects of intoxication.
  • Take a pain reliever. An over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen can help relieve headaches. Avoid Tylenol, however, since alcohol may interact with acetaminophen. Caffeine can also help relieve some effects of a hangover. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.