People who drink heavily have increased chances of engaging in unsafe sex and exposing themselves to a sexually transmitted disease, according to recent findings from a team of American researchers. Alcohol is known for its ability to lower inhibition levels and increase the odds that a person will act impulsively or recklessly. In a study published in April 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the Brown University School of Public Health assessed the connection between consuming specific amounts of alcohol and the odds of participating in unsafe sex and potentially contracting a sexually transmitted infection. These researchers concluded that heavy but non-extreme drinking significantly boosts risks for unsafe sex.
Heavy drinking gets its name because the practice places an undue burden on the liver, the organ responsible for breaking down and eliminating alcohol circulating in the bloodstream. Since alcohol is a toxic substance, failure to eliminate its presence in a timely manner can trigger a range of serious problems, especially in a person who repeatedly drinks in heavy amounts. In the U.S., the threshold for heavy drinking in men is the consumption of more than four drinks on any single day or the consumption of more than 14 drinks in any single week. Women have a minimum heavy drinking threshold of more than three drinks on any one day or more than seven drinks in any one week. Under common public health standards, a “drink” is any serving size of beer, malt liquor, wine, distilled liquor or any other beverage that contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. If you drink heavily just one day per month, you have a roughly 20 percent chance of developing diagnosable problems with alcohol abuse or alcoholism over the course of your life. If you drink heavily four times a month (i.e., once weekly), your lifelong alcohol abuse/alcoholism risks jump to about 33 percent. If you qualify as a heavy drinker at least twice a week, your odds of developing diagnosable alcohol problems in the near or distant future jump again to 50 percent. A heavy drinker may also experience serious, severe or potentially fatal short-term alcohol-related harm if he or she binges on alcohol by drinking rapidly enough to reach a legally intoxicated state in a maximum of 120 minutes.
Alcohol, Inhibition and Unsafe Sex
In addition to producing effects such as euphoria and a decline in muscle coordination, alcohol intoxication commonly lowers the inhibitions that normally help limit participation in a range of high-risk behaviors. Generally speaking, sex-related behavior appears prominently on the list of alcohol-related behavioral changes. Both men and women have a higher chance of being sexually active while under the influence of alcohol, even though the presence of significant amounts of alcohol in the brain and bloodstream can interfere with sexual performance. Alcohol-related declines in judgment and rational thinking can seriously increase the chances that an intoxicated man or woman will engage in unprotected sex.
Impact of Heavy Drinking
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the Brown University researchers used information gathered from heavy drinkers who end up in emergency rooms to help determine the quantities of alcohol that increase the odds of participating in unsafe sex and potentially contracting a sexually transmitted infection such as chlamydia, genital herpes or HIV. All of the study participants were heterosexual men or women. The researchers asked each participant to provide a one-month record of how much alcohol he or she consumed, as well as his or her level of involvement in sex in general, unsafe sex in general and unsafe sex with someone other than a regular partner. The researchers largely focused on outcomes related to unsafe sex outside of the context of a relationship. They concluded that alcohol use in general does not increase the odds of engaging in this form of high-risk sexual conduct. However, they also concluded that heavy drinkers do have increased chances of getting involved in unsafe sex outside of a relationship, at least as long as they don’t consume alcohol in extreme amounts. The study’s authors did not directly address the issue, but extreme heavy drinkers may have sexual performance issues that lower their chances of having unsafe sex. Overall, the authors believe that their findings demonstrate the importance of addressing the issue of unsafe sex in the context of excessive alcohol consumption.