What Is Alcohol Tolerance?

Manish Mishra, MBBS

Medically Reviewed By: Manish Mishra, MBBS

on October 3, 2023

The term “alcohol tolerance” refers to the way your body responds to alcohol. If you drink often, you probably have a high alcohol tolerance. That means you need increasingly larger or more frequent drinks to feel drunk.

Across the world, about 2 billion people drink alcohol. Some of them occasionally have a drink or two and experience no health problems. Others drink large amounts of alcohol on a regular basis, leading to a high alcohol tolerance. 

Here’s what you should know about alcohol tolerance and how it threatens your well-being. 

What Is Alcohol Tolerance?

Alcohol tolerance refers to the way your body responds to alcoholic beverages

In general, when you drink alcohol for the first time, it won’t take long for you to feel tipsy or drunk. That’s because your alcohol tolerance starts out low. In other words, your body is not yet accustomed to alcohol, meaning you’re more sensitive to the drug’s effects.

If you start drinking more often, your tolerance will increase. Eventually, you might need three or four drinks to feel the same effects you used to experience after one drink. 

How Long Does It Take Tolerance To Develop?

Some people develop high alcohol tolerances over several weeks, months, or years, while others develop them in just a few days. The amount of time it takes to build up a tolerance depends on personal factors, such as:

  • how often you drink
  • how many drinks you have at a time
  • your sex, as males tend to be larger than females and therefore less sensitive to the effects of alcohol
  • your overall physical health
  • whether you have a family history of alcohol abuse or addiction

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Excessive Drinking

People with high alcohol tolerances are more likely to engage in excessive drinking. Excessive drinking poses a number of serious risks, including:

  • accidents, including burns, drownings, and motor vehicles crashes
  • alcohol poisoning (also called alcohol overdose)
  • mental health problems, including anxiety and depression
  • memory problems
  • high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke
  • digestive problems
  • liver disease
  • cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum

Types Of Alcohol Tolerance

Researchers have identified multiple types of alcohol tolerance:

Functional Tolerance

Functional tolerance occurs when your brain adapts to the behavioral and bodily changes caused by alcohol. 

Someone with this type of tolerance may drink so often that they no longer experience some of the negative effects of alcohol, such as nausea, slurred speech, and poor coordination.

However, even if they seem sober, the person could still cause serious harm if they tried to drive or perform other complex tasks. That’s because certain effects of alcohol, including slowed reaction time and poor peripheral vision, appear no matter how high your tolerance is.

Acute Tolerance

Acute tolerance occurs when your alcohol tolerance increases during a single session of drinking. For example, you might seem buzzed after your first drink, only for the effects to fade within an hour (even if you spent that hour consuming more drinks). 

Environment-Dependent Tolerance

Environment-dependent tolerance occurs when you regularly drink in the same environment or around the same people. 

For instance, you might find you’re less sensitive to alcohol when you drink at bars compared to other places. That’s because your body associates bars with alcohol consumption. 

Environment-Independent Tolerance

Environment-independent tolerance occurs when you drink increasingly larger amounts of alcohol. This behavior will make you more tolerant to alcohol no matter where you drink or who you drink with.

Learned Tolerance

Learned tolerance occurs when you repeatedly perform the same task while intoxicated. For example, some people regularly drive under the influence of alcohol. Over time, whenever they get behind the wheel, they may appear less intoxicated than they actually are. 

Metabolic Tolerance

Metabolic tolerance occurs when heavy drinking activates certain enzymes in your liver. Your liver then metabolizes alcohol more quickly, meaning you sober up faster than usual. 

Unfortunately, the enzymes may also impact the way your body metabolizes other drugs, including prescription drugs, which can lead to liver damage.

Alcohol Tolerance & Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Alcohol tolerance is often a sign of alcohol use disorder (also called alcohol addiction). This disease makes you feel unable to stop drinking alcohol despite negative consequences. Other common symptoms include:

  • frequently craving alcohol
  • spending a lot of time drinking or recovering from hangover
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea or anxiety, when you don’t drink alcohol (also known as physical dependence) 
  • neglecting activities you once enjoyed so you can spend more time drinking
  • drinking in unsafe situations, such as while driving or swimming

If you or someone you love experiences these symptoms, seek help at an addiction treatment program. These inpatient and outpatient programs offer treatments such as:

  • medical detox, which helps you manage alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • mental health counseling, which helps you manage alcohol cravings and any underlying mental health concerns that may have contributed to your alcohol abuse
  • medication-assisted treatment, which can ease alcohol cravings and withdrawal symptoms
  • support groups, which help you connect with other people in recovery 
  • wellness activities, such as exercise, meditation, and journaling

To learn more about alcohol addiction treatment options, please reach out to Ohio Recovery Center. Our board-certified healthcare providers offer personalized, evidence-based care to help you or your loved one thrive.

  1. Biological Research on Addiction https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/veterinary-science-and-veterinary-medicine/alcohol-tolerance
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
  3. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8917511/
  4. University of Toledo https://www.utoledo.edu/studentaffairs/counseling/selfhelp/substanceuse/tolerance.html
  5. World Health Organization https://www.who.int/health-topics/alcohol#tab=tab_1

Written by Ohio Recovery Center Editorial Team

© 2024 Ohio Recovery Center | All Rights Reserved

* This page does not provide medical advice.

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