According to one study, sleeping badly and drinking alcohol can affect an individual’s brain in similar ways. When your neurons are exhausted, you may notice that you’re slower to respond, your movements are weaker, and you can’t concentrate.
This helps us understand why it can be so hard to function without a solid night’s rest. However, it also makes it difficult to discern whether someone else is inebriated, or simply needs to sleep.
If you believe someone you know might be abusing alcohol, it’s important to know the signs. Today, we’re sharing how to tell if someone is drunk so you can better distinguish between the two conditions.
The Brain on No Sleep
We’ve all been there. Maybe you’re cramming for a test in the morning, or trying to finish a big project at work before the deadline. You may simply be up all night with a newborn.
No matter what’s keeping you awake, you likely feel the effects throughout your body and mind. Mentally, you may experience memory lapses, or find it difficult to focus on the task in front of you. Physically, your motions might be slower and less sharp.
What’s going on?
Put simply, skipping out on sleep robs our neurons of their ability to function properly. This can lead to lapses in cognitive function, affecting how we perceive and interact with the world around us. You may experience visual stimuli throughout the day, but you’re unable to respond to them as quickly as you could if you were well-rested. Other changes you might experience include:
- Delayed reaction times
- Poor judgment
- An inability to judge distance or speed
This can be especially dangerous if you’re behind the wheel. While there are laws in place to keep drunk drivers off the road, no such standards or regulations exist to prevent sleepy individuals from getting into the driver’s seat. Drowsy driving can be extremely dangerous, and research shows it leads to nearly 3% of all traffic accidents.
The same research also reveals that when someone has been awake for more than 18 hours, the effect on their body is akin to having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05. That number escalates to 0.10 if they pass the 24-hour mark with no sleep.
While you might be able to tell when it’s time to take a break and rest, it can be much more difficult to detect these symptoms in others. This is especially the case if you know someone has been drinking alcohol, or has a history of alcohol abuse.
In this case, it helps to understand the telltale signs of intoxication, and how they differ from sleepiness.
Signs of Intoxication
As mentioned, there are certain side effects that individuals can feel whether they’re tired or drunk. These are mostly mental in nature, and include a loss of concentration, focus, and memory, as well as coordination.
However, those similarities aside, there are also key symptoms of intoxication that are distinct from sleepiness. These can be divided into five separate categories depending on the part of the mind or body they affect. These categories include:
Let’s take a closer look at each one.
When someone is drunk, you may notice certain changes in their appearance, especially on their face. For instance, their eyes may appear glassy, watery, or bloodshot and their eyelids might be droopy. In addition, their face might look flushed.
Beyond those differences, pay attention to their expression. Often, people who are drunk will have blank stares on their faces or will appear to be dazed. While this can also occur when someone is just tired, these side effects in the presence of other physical changes could point to intoxication.
If they’ve had too much to drink, you may also notice body tremors or slight twitching. Their clothing might look rumpled or disheveled, along with their hair.
If you’re used to spending time with someone sober, it can be easier to tell when they’ve been drinking. That’s because a drunk person will often take on a different type of attitude. They might go from calm and collected to loud and obnoxious, for example.
They may become argumentative or defensive, especially if you bring up their drinking or suggest that they stop. Even in a normally peaceful person, there could be signs of aggression.
At the same time, intoxicated individuals can also display the opposite attitude. They may become overly warm and friendly, even to the point of being inappropriate. This can lead to boisterous behavior all in the name of “fun” as well as unwanted advances.
These attitude changes are much less likely to occur in someone who is tired, and are usually always a sign of being drunk, not sleepiness. While a person running on little to no sleep might appear short-tempered or inpatient, it doesn’t usually escalate to the degree that intoxication leads to.
Often, behavioral changes are some of the first differences you’ll note when someone is drunk. While some are relatively obvious, such as stumbling or swaying while walking, others are more subtle.
Some of the most common differences in behavior include:
- An inability to sit straight
- Overly emotional (e.g. crying or moody)
- Overly animated and entertaining
- Making crude or inappropriate gestures
- Failing to focus or make eye contact
- Falling down or falling out of a chair
- Acting clumsy
- Acting confused or disoriented
- Acting agitated or anxious
- Drowsiness or falling asleep
- Grinding teeth
At first glance, some of these alcohol side effects could also be attributed to someone who’s functioning without much sleep. For instance, simply acting anxious doesn’t necessarily mean that someone is drunk. The same goes for anyone who acts drowsy or even falls asleep at the table.
However, it’s important to look at these behaviors in context. If someone you know is acting anxious and they’re stumbling or having a hard time connecting the rim of their drink with their mouth, this could mean they’re inebriated. The more symptoms you can link together, the higher the likelihood that it’s alcohol, not sleep deprivation, that’s behind the behavior.
In some cases, alcohol-related behavioral changes affect not only how the person acts in the moment, but also the decisions they make. For example, someone who’s drinking excessively at a bar might suddenly become less cautious with their money and offer to buy the whole restaurant a round.
If someone’s acting drunk in other ways, pay close attention to the way they talk. As they consume more and more alcohol, their speech may start to seem thicker or more slurred than usual.
You may also notice changes in volume. Even someone who’s typically soft-spoken can become obnoxiously loud when they’ve had too much to drink. Then, once they notice that they’re doing so, they may get incredibly quiet. These repetitive changes are a sign that they’re not socially aware of their actions and what’s going on around them.
In addition to the tone and volume of their speech, focus also on the topics they’re talking about. In this case, both tired and drunk people may ramble on about seemingly random topics, without a logical train of thought that you can follow. However, a distinguishing characteristic of being drunk is that the person may talk coherently, but on topics that are out of character.
For instance, someone who’s normally humble and quiet may launch into a tirade of boasting or bravado. They may also repeat themselves over and over again, or make statements that are irrational. When you ask them a question, they may be slow to respond.
While you can assign some of these changes to a tired person, context still matters. When someone’s tired, they’re usually more inclined to stay quiet or give short answers. They aren’t as likely to speak loudly, make bold claims, or repeat themselves.
While these are some of the most common signs that someone is drunk, they aren’t the only ones. There are other signs and side effects to look out for, such as:
- The smell of alcohol on their clothes, hair, or breath
- Excessive perspiration
- Frequent trips outside or to the bathroom
The Stages of Being Drunk: What to Look For
When someone is severely drunk, their life could be at risk. This condition can lead to a range of serious health conditions, such as:
- Physical injuries
When you know what to look for, you can help your loved one seek help, so they don’t reach this level. Usually, there are a few different stages that someone will go through when they drink. Let’s take a look and the effects associated with each one.
If someone has consumed one or fewer alcoholic drinks in an hour, they are considered sober, or low-level intoxicated. Most of the time, they will feel and act like their normal selves unless their tolerance is very low.
Usually, men will start to feel tipsy when they consume two to three alcoholic drinks in one hour. Women will feel this way after consuming just one to two drinks in the same timeframe. Feeling tipsy is the first inclination that the alcohol is having an effect on one’s body.
At this point, the alcohol has entered their bloodstream and has started to affect their brain and body. Some of the changes you might notice include:
- Increased talkativeness
- A higher likelihood of taking risks
- Poor short-term memory
- Slowed motor responses and reflexes
- Shortened attention span
The tipsy stage can also bring a sense of euphoria.
If a man consumes three to five drinks in an hour (two to four drinks for women), he may shift from feeling tipsy to feeling excited. At this stage, a person is technically considered to be drunk.
Some of the changes you might notice include:
- Emotional instability
- Easily excited
- Easily saddened
- Difficulty recalling events
- Difficulty making decisions
- Blurred vision
- Sleepiness or drowsiness
If sleepiness is the only symptom present, don’t automatically assume the person is drunk. Look for the other signs listed herein to determine if alcohol is behind their actions.
Confusion and disorientation can happen in the next phase. This happens when a man drinks more than five drinks per hour (more than four per hour for women). The most common side effects at this stage include:
- Emotional outbursts
- Loss of coordination
- Significant confusion
- Inability to feel pain
Someone who is disoriented may also black out or move in and out of consciousness, even if they remain awake.
When someone is in a drunken stupor, they are essentially unable to respond to the things going on around them. If they can stand or walk at all, it won’t be for very long.
They may even pass out completely and lose control of their functions. Physically, you may notice that their skin has a bluish tint or looks pale. They may even have seizures.
This is a very dangerous stage to be in, and the one that directly precedes death. Other critical conditions to look out for include:
- Changes in breathing patterns
- Loss of natural gag reflex
The gag reflex is especially important. If someone who’s drunk vomits and cannot gag correctly, they could choke on their vomit. They’re also at risk of becoming critically injured. If you believe that someone has entered into this stage of intoxication, help them seek help as soon as possible.
Know How to Tell If Someone Is Drunk or Tired
While many of the symptoms of being drunk mimic those associated with sleepiness, the two conditions are markedly different. In this post, we’ve shared some of the side effects you will notice as someone moves from one stage of intoxication to the next.
Still wondering how to tell if someone is drunk? If they exhibit many of these symptoms at once, they are most likely drunk and not just tired. If this happens on a regular basis, there’s a chance that the individual could be suffering from alcohol use disorder.
At Purpose Healing Center, we provide a range of treatments and therapies designed to help patients break free of addiction and embrace a healthier future. As a select AHCCCS treatment center in Scottsdale, we’ll meet you where you are and walk with you through this journey. To learn more, visit or contact us today.