iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D.

GET UPDATES FROM Glenn D. Braunstein, M.D.
 

Can You Beat the Breathalyzer on New Year's Eve?

Posted: 12/28/09 12:13 PM ET

Celebrating the arrival of the New Year with champagne or other spirits is as traditional as counting down the last the last few seconds of the old year or singing Auld Lang Syne. Looking back at the trials and tribulations of 2009, it is no wonder that many of us would like to say good riddance and ring in 2010 with a dash of optimism and little gusto. There is a difference, however, between a little gusto and a lot of gusto.

For many individuals, New Year's Eve celebrations will exceed moderation, and there are risks besides making a fool out of oneself--getting into a drunk-driving accident or getting pulled over by breathalyzer-wielding law enforcement officers. Breathalyzers work by estimating your blood-alcohol level from the amount of alcohol that you exhale in your breath. These machines are pretty accurate and are not fooled by breath mints, eating onions, chewing gum, using denture cream, gargling mouthwash, or sucking on copper pennies or batteries. (In fact, alcohol-containing mouthwashes can falsely elevate a reading, so definitely don't try that one!) In other words, no matter what you do, if you are drunk, the breathalyzer will confirm it.

One of my good friends carries a pocket breathalyzer with him when he goes to a party or one of LA's fine restaurants. Before he gets in his car, he checks his alcohol level--if it is too high, his wife, who primarily consumes soft drinks and tea, drives. However, one does not have to go to this extreme to be safe. There are several charts and calculators online like this one from the California DMV that can help provide some guidance about what the legal limits are based on weight and consumption. The guidelines may vary depending on several factors including: the alcohol content of the type of alcohol consumed; or whether the person is drinking on an empty or full stomach; is tired or sick; or has taken medication or drugs.

So, if you're over the legal limit and you don't have a designated driver, is there anything you can do to sober up quickly before getting behind the wheel?

There are many products on the market sold to help you sober up quickly. These "alcohol antidote" pills claim that they work with your body's natural alcohol detoxification system to safely metabolize alcohol within 30 minutes. Others, such as those that contain activated charcoal, claim to lower your body's rate of alcohol absorption, while simultaneously protecting your stomach and liver. Activated charcoal, like food, will help decrease the rate of alcohol absorption if they are taken simultaneously. However, there isn't a pill to counteract the effects of alcohol once you have ingested it, as it is absorbed very rapidly. So, save your money.

Some believe taking vitamins while drinking, or quickly consuming foods high in fructose, will help you sober up in 30 minutes. This is a myth and has no validity. Eating foods such as fruits, honey or other highly processed foods, including sugared sodas and cereals, may help decrease your blood alcohol level slightly because of the food intake, but will not instantly sober you up. The high sugar content will not work any faster than eating a healthy meal. The time your body takes to metabolize the alcohol naturally will vary depending on your size and genetics.

What about the age-old idea of drinking black coffee to sober up? This is another urban myth. Yes, the caffeine may make you feel more awake, but don't be fooled by this. Your liver is responsible for eliminating alcohol from your bloodstream. The liver eliminates alcohol over time. There are some studies that show that hot liquids actually increase the rate at which alcohol is absorbed through your stomach and into your bloodstream. Speeding up alcohol absorption into the bloodstream does nothing to speed up the liver's rate of toxin elimination. If you have been drinking, no amount of coffee is going to make you a safe driver and there is no way to speed up the process. Also, a cold shower will not make you sober, it will just make you cold. Time is the only factor that works.

An average taxi ride in Los Angeles could run about $60. The average costs associated with a DUI exceeds $8,000, before you factor in attorney fees, any medical expenses if you have an accident and the rate hike in your car insurance. However you choose to celebrate the New Year, have fun, but skip the sobering gimmicks. And if you celebrate a bit too much, sleep it off where you are or have somebody drive you home. Here's to a great 2010!