By Diane Lee, Public Information Officer, Garrett County Health Department

The holidays are a time for celebrations, but it’s also a time when some people are more likely to drink beyond their limits than at other times of the year. Adverse consequences, ranging from fights to falls to traffic crashes, can also happen. Sadly, many often put themselves and others at risk because they don’t understand how alcohol affects their bodies during an evening of celebratory drinking.

Despite the potential dangers, myths about drinking persist, which can prove fatal for some. Scientific studies supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism provide important information challenging these widespread, yet incorrect, beliefs about how quickly alcohol affects the body and how long the effects of drinking last.

Alcohol’s effects on the body begin quickly. Critical decision-making abilities and driving-related skills are already reduced long before a person shows physical signs of intoxication.

At first, alcohol acts as a stimulant, so drinkers may feel upbeat and excited. But alcohol soon decreases inhibitions and judgment and can lead to reckless decisions.

As more alcohol is consumed, reaction time suffers and behavior becomes poorly controlled and sometimes even aggressive—leading to fights and other types of violence. Continued drinking causes the slurred speech and loss of balance we typically associate with being drunk. At these levels and above, alcohol can also cause blackouts, making so a person can not remember what happened while he or she was intoxicated. At higher levels, alcohol acts as a depressant, which causes the drinker to become sleepy and in some cases pass out. At even higher levels, drinkers face the danger of life-threatening alcohol overdose due to the suppression of vital life functions.

During an evening of drinking, it’s also easy to misjudge how long alcohol’s effects last. For example, many people believe they will begin to sober up—and be able to drive safely—once they stop drinking and have a cup of coffee. The truth is that alcohol continues to affect the brain and body long after the last drink has been finished. Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, resulting in impaired judgment and coordination for hours.

We don’t intend to harm anyone when we celebrate during the holiday season, yet, violence and traffic fatalities associated with alcohol misuse persist, and myths about drinking live on—even though scientific studies have documented how alcohol affects the brain and body.

Because individuals differ, the specific effects of alcohol on an individual will vary. But certain facts are clear—there’s no way to make good decisions when you are intoxicated and there’s no way to sober up faster.

So plan ahead to avoid the dangers of alcohol. Use these tips if you host a holiday gathering:

  • Offer a variety of nonalcoholic drinks—water, juices, sparkling sodas. Nonalcoholic drinks help counteract the dehydrating effects of alcohol. Also, the other fluids may slow the rate of alcohol absorption into the body and reduce the peak alcohol concentration in the blood.
  • Provide a variety of healthy foods and snacks. Food can slow the absorption of alcohol and reduce the peak level of alcohol in the body by about one-third. It can also minimize stomach irritation and gastrointestinal distress the following day.
  • Help your guests get home safely—use designated drivers and taxis. Anyone getting behind the wheel of a car should not have any alcohol.
  • If you are a parent, understand the underage drinking laws—and set a good example.

For more information about keeping your holiday safe visit kNOwDRINKING.net. Projects of the  kNOwDRINKING.net campaign are partially funded by SAMHSA and Maryland Behavioral Health Administration.