How many drinks it takes for someone to become intoxicated can vary from person to person. It can depend on how often they drink, their size, alcohol units, and if they have eaten anything recently.

This article looks at alcohol absorption and metabolism, what causes someone to feel drunk, and what causes hangovers.

It also looks at measuring alcohol and drinking limit recommendations, levels of intoxication, and some frequently asked questions.

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A person’s size can influence the number of drinks it takes for them to get drunk.

As alcohol enters someone’s upper gastrointestinal tract, it is absorbed through the stomach lining into the bloodstream.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcohol enters the bloodstream very quickly.

The blood carries then the alcohol through the body and into the brain.

If someone has food in their stomach, it can slow the process of alcohol absorption down. Otherwise, the body absorbs alcohol very rapidly, and the effects can begin to show after only 10 minutes.

Alcohol has an effect on many different systems and organs in the body, which can cause the sensations that people associate with feeling drunk.

Some of alcohol’s effects on the body are as follows:

  • Alcohol can affect the brain and depress the central nervous system.
  • It can also cause the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, resulting in a person feeling relaxed.
  • It downregulates glutamate, which makes someone’s brain slower to respond to stimuli.
  • It also activates gamma-aminobutyric acid, which makes people feel calm.

The following are some of the factors that contribute to a hangover:

Immune factors

Alcohol has a significant effect on the immune system.

Scientists suggest that increases in inflammatory immune cells contribute to the nausea, fatigue, and headache associated with hangovers.

Disrupted sleep

Alcohol can disrupt a person’s sleep. This can cause a person to feel tired the next day.

According to the NIAAA, consuming alcohol can cause fragmented sleep and cause a person to wake earlier.


After absorption, the body metabolizes alcohol into acetaldehyde, which causes toxic effects and tissue damage.

This may cause some hangover symptoms, including nausea, sweating, and headache.


In the hangover phase, the body can concentrate and metabolize the methanol present in alcohol into toxic compounds.

The body only metabolizes methanol after it has cleared the ethanol from the system.

Researchers think that this may explain why “the hair of the dog” helps delay a hangover. Ethanol itself also produces a hangover, however.


Congeners are substances present in alcohol. Researchers think that these may contribute to hangover severity.

According to an older 2010 review, beverages containing fewer congeners — such as vodka — may cause fewer hangover symptoms than beverages such as bourbon.

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is the percentage of alcohol in someone’s blood.

Law enforcement can measure and detect a person’s BAC within 30–70 minutes of them consuming alcohol.

In the United States, a BAC level of 0.08% is the standard to identify legal intoxication. However, some states have additional standards, such as a BAC lowered to 0.04% for drivers of commercial vehicles.

Many states impose harsh penalties for drivers whose BAC is exceptionally high.

People can use a calculator to find out their approximate BAC level. However, they should not rely on this to determine whether or not they are fit to work or drive.

Although the standard to identify legal intoxication is a BAC of 0.08% in the U.S., people can become intoxicated at levels lower than this.

Levels of intoxication can depend on a person’s weight and age. How regularly they drink and when they last ate can also affect their intoxication level.

As soon as someone takes a sip of alcohol, it starts to enter their bloodstream. The effects can be apparent in as little as 10 minutes. As someone’s BAC increases, they can become more impaired by the effects of intoxication.

The effects of alcohol intoxication may include:

  • slurred speech
  • reduced inhibitions
  • impairment of motor abilities
  • confusion
  • memory problems
  • concentration problems

More extreme effects of intoxication can include breathing problems, coma, and, in rarer cases, death.

The following are one alcoholic drink equivalents:

  • 12 fluid ounces (oz) of beer with 5% alcohol
  • 5 fluid oz of wine with 12% alcohol
  • 1.5 fluid oz of spirits with 40% alcohol

People should consider the size of the beverage and its alcohol content when calculating how much they have had to drink.

For example, a beer might be more than 12 oz, so even if the alcohol content is still 5%, it would be more than one drink equivalent.

Mixed beverages and cocktails vary in their alcohol content and can contain a variable number of drink equivalents.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that if a person consumes alcohol, it should be in moderation.

This equates to up to one drink per day for females and up to two drinks per day for males.

According to the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, high risk and binge drinking are classified in the following ways:

High risk drinking

  • four or more drinks on any day, or eight or more drinks per week, for females
  • five or more drinks on any day, or 15 or more drinks per week, for males

Binge drinking

  • the consumption of four or more drinks within about 2 hours for females
  • the consumption of five or more drinks within about 2 hours for males

People who should avoid drinking

Some people should not drink alcohol at all, while others may need to limit their alcohol consumption at certain times.

These groups include:

  • people under the age of 21 years old
  • women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • people taking certain medications
  • people recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • individuals who are driving or planning to drive
  • people who are doing activities or work that requires coordination and alertness
  • those who are unable to control the amount they drink

Excessive drinking can have negative effects. These include:

  • a higher risk of many chronic conditions
  • a higher risk of violence
  • issues with short- or long-term cognitive function
  • accidental injuries
  • risky or impulsive sexual behavior

The sections below list some frequently asked questions:

How many drinks does it take to get drunk for the first time?

If someone has never consumed alcohol before, it usually takes fewer drinks to become intoxicated. How quickly they get drunk can also depend on their size and whether or not they have eaten anything recently.

Someone who is drinking for the first time should be particularly mindful of how many drinks they consume, as they will be unaware of their tolerance levels.

Underage drinking is associated with consequences such as accidents, social problems, and death.

How quickly will I get drunk if I have not eaten?

The presence of food in the stomach can slow down the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.

If a person has not eaten anything recently, they should be particularly careful about how much they drink.

Can I get drunk on nonalcoholic beverages?

Only drinks with alcohol content can make someone drunk.

However, it is important to check the ingredients of all beverages before consuming them, as some may look like soft drinks but contain alcohol.

What happens if I mix alcohol with other drugs?

According to the NIAAA, alcohol can have dangerous interactions with other drugs, including:

  • prescription drugs
  • over-the-counter medications
  • recreational drugs
  • herbal remedies

If a person mixes alcohol and certain medications, they may experience:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headaches
  • fainting
  • drowsiness
  • loss of coordination

There may also be a chance of internal bleeding, breathing difficulties, and heart problems.

It can also make certain medications less effective.

People should not mix alcohol with other drugs unless they have checked with a medical professional first.

AUD is the term that medical professionals use when someone’s drinking habits become dangerous.

The NIAAA estimate that roughly 15 million people in the U.S. have AUD. AUD is a chronic relapsing condition characterized by:

  • compulsive alcohol use
  • loss of control over alcohol intake
  • a negative emotional state when not using alcohol

If someone is concerned about their alcohol intake or its effects on them or other people, they should talk to their doctor.

There are a number of factors that determine how many drinks it takes for someone to get drunk. People should consider this when drinking, especially if they are doing so for the first time.

Becoming intoxicated can put someone in danger, and long-term excessive alcohol consumption can lead to ill health and addiction.

People who are under the age of 21, pregnant, or planning to drive should avoid alcohol altogether.

A person can enjoy alcohol in moderation at the recommended guideline amounts.