Altitude Does Not Increase the Effect of Alcohol

May 19, 2010 at 5:00 am 8 comments

By Chad Upton | Editor

Whether you’re in a plane, at the top of a ski hill or reading this in the mile high city, your body will metabolize alcohol exactly the same in all cases.

It is a common myth that you get drunk at high altitude much faster than at lower altitudes. In fact, I set out to research why this is the case, only to find out it’s not the truth.

As you can probably imagine, they didn’t have any trouble finding volunteers to help them get to the bottom of this — it has been studied and studied and studied and studied (PDF).

Even without alcohol, high altitudes can induce high-altitude sickness, which happens because there is less oxygen in the air. Because the symptoms are much the same as a hangover (headache, nausea, vomiting…etc), the effects of alcohol are often confused with high-altitude sickness. In fact, there is a study that shows Alcohol can impede the initial stages of adapting to high altitude; therefore, it is recommended that people do not drink for the first couple days while their body acclimatizes to the lower oxygen levels of high altitudes.

A study with alpine skiers in Austria tested blood-alcohol content at sea-level and at 10,000 feet. After drinking a liter of beer, their blood-alcohol levels were the same regardless of altitude.

An FAA study (PDF) found that both alcohol and altitude affect pilot performance, but there was no interaction between the two. Altitude does affect your ability to perform tasks, but that effect is present with or without alcohol. Another US government funded study found the same thing, concluding, “there was no synergistic interactive effect of alcohol and altitude on either breathalyzer readings or performance scores.”

From my observations, college loans are another popular way to get government money to study the effects of alcohol.

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Sources: Pub Med, High Altitude, Annals, FAA (PDF), AHA

Photo: evilmidori (cc)


Professionals should always supervise detox from alcohol and other drugs to prevent any untoward medical mishaps.

Entry filed under: Despite Popular Belief, Travel. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. melissa  |  May 19, 2010 at 6:20 am

    This blog is wonderful.
    I love love LOVE the press, and I love seeing what you’re experiencing! .
    Great work.
    I will bookmark this page.
    Thanks for this.

  • 2. Lionel  |  May 20, 2010 at 7:46 am

    Really sorry about this, but I have to point out the misuse of Affect when it should be Effect. :-)

    • 3. Chad Upton  |  May 20, 2010 at 1:15 pm

      No, you’re right… thanks for pointing it out!

  • 4. Phoebe Dotson  |  June 14, 2010 at 6:12 pm’s done it once again! Great post.

  • 5. Keith Hammond  |  May 5, 2011 at 7:20 am

    If you will look at your own scientific papers, two of them say that alcohol increase the effects of altitude. Your “volunteer” study used what kind of control group and what was there preconceived ideas on the subject? The FAA test was done on 8 pilots with a blown achohol test; take this study to a researcher and ask them about sample size and methodology of gathering data. The facts are the natural effect of alcohol and the natural effects of altitude on the body line up, dehydration, reduced oxygen, etc, Becareful what you post, people may listen to your ideas and put themselves and others at risk.

  • 6. Best Airline Wines - FlyerTalk Forums  |  August 17, 2011 at 4:07 am

    […] the wine. Really? I thought alcohol had more of an effect in such an environment. Maybe not:…ct-of-alcohol/. The results of numerous "studies" seem to contradict each […]

  • 7. Kevin B  |  October 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm

    I can personally attest to the fact that it has a stronger affect in some way – maybe the combination of alcohol in an already reduced oxygen environment is additive?

  • 8. Waldo  |  May 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Ok I’m from Colorado. Lived in Colorado my whole life. I drink one two beers and can feel the effect right away. When I go to California I have three four beers and it’s as if I only drank one. I was able to intake more alcohol before feeling drunk then when I am home in Colorado. I figure since I grow up in a city with very low oxygen level and when I go some where with high oxygen levels I am able to drink more then normal. Like a car engine. More oxygen the better performance


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