Enjoy holiday activities–but protect yourself from this “false” sense of security!

December 13, 2011 drdarria 1 Comments

So—if you followed my advice last week on how to avoid or get over a cold, you should be feeling better by now and ready to join in on the many holiday activities on your schedule! Given the upcoming holidays (and hence holiday parties), I wanted to take this eek to provide a little education, and hopefully some protection for you and your loved ones.

Working in the ER, we daily see the unfortunate consequences of alcohol intoxication.  However, if you are thinking to yourself right now  “I never drive impaired” or “as long as I stay under the legal alcohol limit, I am safe, right?”


While many of us rely on the legal limit of 0.08% as the “safe threshold”, studies have long shown that even small amounts of alcohol can significantly impair your ability to function or drive. What’s worse, at low levels such as 0.05% (below the legal limit of 0.08%), people are unlikely to show any signs of intoxication (so their passengers and friends do not recognize the impairment), and yet they are 30% more likely to have impaired driving and difficulty stopping and more than TWICE as likely to make incorrect emergency maneuvers.  Even worse, at this level of intoxication, people often do not perceive themselves to be impaired at all, and in some studies, perceive themselves to be better. 

To test function at alcohol levels below the legal limit, a consortium through Boston University, Brown University, and the Maine Maritime Academy tested performance of cadets on a simulator after ingesting enough alcohol to obtain BAC of 0.04%-0.05% (below the legal limit).  The cadets did not know if they were given alcohol or not.  They were then tested on a program that simulated piloting a large merchant vessel through a busy harbor.  Cadets with BAC of 0.04-0.05 performed twenty percent worse than their counterparts with no alcohol.  They also rated themselves as “not intoxicated” as often as those with no alcohol, and, frighteningly, those with alcohol tended to rate themselves as less intoxicated.

So how much alcohol is too much?

  • Blood Alcohol Content (BAC): BAC is a percentage of alcohol in the blood.  A BAC of 0.10 means 0.10% (one tenth of a percent) of a person’s blood is alcohol.
  • Legal alcohol limit: determined by each state, for most is 0.08, but it is lower in some states.
  • One standard drink (according to the Department of Health and Human Services)
    • 12 ounces regular beer
    • 5 ounces wine
    • 1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirit
  • When your stomach is empty, it takes 30-90 minutes for the alcohol to reach its peak effect.  Women have fewer receptors to metabolize their alcohol, so even if they are the same weight as a male, a female will still have a lower tolerance.
  • Translating beverages into levels: (these are averages and will vary depending on the person, the amount of time, and are very rough estimates—a great calculator is available through the Department of Transportation http://www.dot.wisconsin.gov/safety/motorist/drunkdriving/calculator.htm)
    • In a 140 pound woman (64kg)
      • one standard drinkà 0.03% (impairment begins), 2 drinks à 0.05% , 3 drinks à 0.08 – 0.1%
    • In a 180lb male (82kg)
      • One drink à 0.02%, 2 drinks à 0.04%, 3 drinks 0.08%
  • It takes approximately 1 hr to decrease your alcohol level by 0.02%, translating into 70-90 minutes for every drink

Keep yourself safe this holiday season:  Don’t let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security because you’re relying on the “0.08%” rule as a safe cutoff, or because the driver of your car “seems to be ok”.

Many people will be driving home this holiday season with low levels of intoxication and no comprehension of their real impairment.

They are all at a 20-30% higher risk of an unfortunate event.   Don’t let that 20-30% include you or your loved ones.

I wish you and your family a great week—may you “be your best” and enjoy the season.

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