Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day Safely

Guest post by George F. Koob, PhD, Director of the NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

 Alcohol-induced blackouts are gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while they were intoxicated. During alcohol-induced blackouts, which are linked to high BAC, people remain conscious, but they can’t remember events that occurred while drinking. They can occur when someone drinks on an empty stomach, drinks quickly, or engages in binge drinking. At high BACs, most cognitive abilities (e.g., impulse control, attention, judgment, and decision-making) are significantly impaired, making the intoxication level associated with blackouts especially dangerous.

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day! Because drinking alcohol is a large part of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities for many people, this is a good time to be mindful of how alcohol can impact your celebrations and your health.

Some people may binge drink on St. Patrick’s Day. Binge drinking is a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to a level of 0.08% — the legal limit for driving in the United States — or higher. This typically occurs after 4 drinks for women and 5 drinks for men in about 2 hours.

Binge drinking is dangerous. Serious safety risks include unintentional injuries from car crashes and falls, as well as alcohol-induced blackouts and overdoses. Binge drinking also increases the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. Even a BAC less than 0.08% can result in memory impairment and attention and coordination issues that may put people at risk for unintentional injuries.

An alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions begin to shut down. Symptoms of alcohol overdose include mental confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, vomiting, seizures, trouble breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin, dulled responses such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking), and extremely low body temperature. Alcohol overdose can lead to permanent brain damage or death. If you suspect that someone has an alcohol overdose, call 911 immediately.

It’s important to note that drinking even small amounts of alcohol can pose risks to your health under certain conditions. For example, drinking any amount could pose a risk if you have a chronic health condition, such as high blood pressure or diabetes, or take a medication that interacts badly with alcohol — an effect that can be potentially fatal. It is safest for women to avoid alcohol altogether if they are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.

Individuals who don’t typically drink much alcohol or who are not familiar with the alcohol content of certain alcoholic beverages may indulge more than usual during holidays and other events. As a result, they may underestimate their level of alcohol consumption and not recognize their level of impairment, leading to potentially hazardous situations.

Tips for a healthy holiday

Common over-the-counter and prescription medications known to interact with alcohol include aspirin, acetaminophen, cold and allergy medicines, cough syrup, sleeping pills, narcotic pain medications, and anxiety or depression medicines as well as some herbal remedies. Since these medications can take time to clear the body, problems can occur even if they are taken several hours before or after consuming alcohol. The combination of consuming alcohol and using a prescription sedative-hypnotic or opioid pain reliever can be deadly.

This week and during all holidays please be mindful of how much alcohol constitutes a standard alcohol drink and how much you are consuming. If you are hosting a party, be sure to have plenty of alcohol-free drinks and snacks available for your guests. Mocktails are growing in popularity and could be an alcohol-free option. Such items can help people stay hydrated and/or slow the absorption of alcohol in the body, thereby reducing peak alcohol concentration in the blood. It is important to take the necessary steps to help ensure your well-being and the safety of your guests.

NIAAA’s alcohol calculators can help you assess the alcohol content of beverages in common container sizes, such as a beer and the number of standard drinks in a cocktail — and help predict blood alcohol concentrations and calorie consumption.

Dr. Koob is an internationally recognized expert on alcohol, stress, and the neurobiology of alcohol and drug addiction. At NIAAA, Dr. Koob provides leadership in the national effort to reduce the public health burden associated with alcohol misuse. Dr. Koob also oversees a broad portfolio of alcohol research ranging from basic science to epidemiology, diagnostics, prevention, and treatment. He also is a Senior Investigator at the NIH National Institute on Drug Abuse, where his laboratory is studying the neurobiology of drug and alcohol addiction

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