Alcohol Intoxication

The Short Term Effects on Thinking and Behavior After Consuming Alcohol

Man and woman drunk in a bathroom
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Alcohol intoxication is the state of drunkenness that people experience after drinking alcohol. It is more often thought of as a normal rite of passage into adulthood, or a way to unwind and relax after a busy day, than as a mental disorder. But mental disorders are patterns of difficulty with thinking that can be predicted, diagnosed and treated, and in fact, alcohol intoxication meets all three of those criteria.

That is why alcohol intoxication is included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, or DSM-5, the gold standard psychiatric manual that doctors and psychologists use to diagnose mental illness.

Why should alcohol intoxication be a problem if it is only an occasional occurrence? Another common mistake it to think that alcohol is only a problem if it leads to alcoholism or Alcohol Use Disorder. In fact, most of the harms that occur as a result of alcohol use are related to alcohol intoxication, in particular, injury and death through accidents, especially motor vehicle accidents that occur when the driver is intoxicated with alcohol, as well as short-term health problems, such as alcohol poisoning, and long-term health consequences, such as cancer and a variety of diseases of organs, such as the liver and the brain. Even moderate drinking can lead to these problems.

It might surprise you to learn that alcohol intoxication is implicated in a large proportion of Emergency Room cases, including treatment of the physical consequences of intoxication itself.

If you are a parent handling an intoxicated child (or adult child), you may find the following articles useful:

Symptoms of Alcohol Intoxication

So what are the symptoms of the mental disorder, alcohol intoxication? Obviously, there has to be evidence that the person has recently consumed alcohol. Beyond that, the person shows through their behavior, mood, or decision making, that they have changed for the worse as a result of their drinking, for example, by becoming sexually inappropriate, aggressive, having mood swings, and poor judgment. Unfortunately, one of the ways that judgment is impaired is by choosing to drink and drive, even if the driver has no intention of doing so when sober. For that reason, it is best to leave your car at home or hand over your car keys to someone who will not return them to you under pressure when you are intoxicated.

There is a very distinctive and recognizable pattern of behavior when people are intoxicated with alcohol. One of the most noticeable signs is slurred speech. Alcohol affects the person's ability to speak clearly, so even when the person is trying to speak clearly, the slurring can be detected by people who are not intoxicated.

Alcohol also impairs people's coordination, so they can become clumsy in ways that they are not when they are sober.

Combined with the unsteady gait that also occurs, this can increase the risk of someone falling when under the influence of alcohol. One test that police used before breathalyzers become common was to ask the person to walk in a straight line. This is very difficult for someone who is intoxicated.

A less well-known sign of alcohol intoxication is nystagmus, which is a kind of small side-to-side eye movement that happens without the person intending it. If you look at the eyes of someone who is intoxicated with alcohol, they will shift around on their own. Having a person track an object with their eyes was another test that police used to determine whether someone was intoxicated.

Alcohol intoxication will also interfere with people's ability to pay attention properly, and to remember. They may forget important details when intoxicated, and they may forget what they did when they were intoxicated after they have sobered up. At its worst, alcohol intoxication can make people unresponsive to what is happening around them, and they can even lose consciousness. This is a dangerous state to be in, both because of the risks of abuses such as rape, and because of the risk of asphyxiation, or inhaling vomit. This is a life-threatening condition. If an intoxicated person loses consciousness, put them into the recovery position, and call 911.


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnositic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition DSM-5. American Psychiatric Association, 2013.

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