Images of people drinking alcohol are everywhere — on TV, in the movies, on billboards, in magazines. However, it’s important to remember that alcohol is a drug and can cause serious health problems. Learn the facts about alcohol and keep yourself safe.
What is alcohol?
The scientific terms for the alcohol that people drink are “ethyl alcohol” or “ethanol”. Alcohol is produced by a process called fermentation, and is found in beer, liquor, and wine. There are other types of alcohol as well, many of which can lead to severe sickness or even death. They’re found in cleaning products, rubbing alcohol, some medications, antifreeze, or in fuel, and are NOT for drinking.
How much alcohol is in a drink?
It depends on the drink. You might think that because a shot glass is small, there’s less alcohol than in a bottle of beer, but that’s not true. In fact, a shot glass can hold the same amount of alcohol as bottle of beer or a glass of wine. A standard drink is considered 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol.
The same amount of alcohol is in:
- 12 ounces of beer
- 5 ounces of wine
- 8 ounces of malt liquor
- 1.5 ounces (a shot) of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor
Why do people drink alcohol?
People have been drinking alcohol for thousands of years. Drinking has become a part of many cultures and religious celebrations, and some people enjoy the taste or the way it makes them feel.
However, there are times when people drink alcohol for the wrong reasons.
Some of these reasons include:
- It seems like “everyone else is doing it”
- Being pressured by friends, classmates, or older siblings
- Avoiding dealing with feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or depression
- Feeling more social or outgoing at parties
What happens to the body when you drink?
When you drink, alcohol enters the bloodstream through your stomach and small intestine. From there it travels to the brain, and because it’s a depressant, it slows down the functions of your body.
- Slows down your reaction time
- Makes you less coordinated
- Impairs your vision
- Makes it harder to thinking clearly and make good decisions
Getting “drunk” (or intoxicated) is your body’s reaction to drinking too much alcohol. This happens when someone is binge drinking.
Additionally, when you’re drunk:
- Your brain function is impaired
- Your blood vessels dilate; this means that you feel warmer, but your body is actually losing heat
- Your risk of getting into a car crash, a physical fight, or sustaining an injury is greatly increased
What is binge drinking?
Binge drinking is when someone drinks a lot of alcohol in a short period of time. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, binge drinking occurs when a guy has more than 5 drinks (or a girl has more than 4) in about 2 hours. Binge drinking is extremely dangerous and can lead to alcohol poisoning.
What is alcohol poisoning?
Alcohol poisoning is one of the most dangerous consequences of binge drinking. Alcohol is processed by your liver, and it takes approximately an hour to process a drink. So if you have more than one drink in an hour, you’re giving your liver more than it can handle. Although your body absorbs alcohol pretty quickly, it takes a lot longer to get out of your system. So if you’ve binged, you’re left with a body that can’t process all the alcohol that it took in, and you can get really sick.
Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
- Feeling confused
- Throwing up
- Having seizures
- Breathing too slowly
- Blue-ish or very pale skin
- Low body temperature
- Passing out (and not able to be awakened)
If someone you know has any of these symptoms, they need immediate medical help. Call 911 right away, and remember to never leave an unconscious person alone.
If you’re binge drinking, you might be so intoxicated that you don’t even realize these symptoms in yourself. This is just one reason why binging is so dangerous.
Alcohol and Your Brain
Scientists used to think that people’s brains were fully developed by the age of 10, but now there’s evidence that shows that the brain isn’t fully developed until people are in their 20’s, or even 30’s. What this means for you as a teen is that your brain is still developing, and alcohol could impair that development.
The last part of the brain to develop is called the frontal lobe, which affects both judgment and impulse control. As a teen, your brain is sophisticated enough that you’re able to learn lots of new things and retain them with a sharp memory. However, you’re also more likely to make risky decisions. So even though you’re smart and you think clearly, it’s harder to recognize what’s going to happen after you do something.
Your friends are drinking at a party. They offer you some beer, and it seems like a good idea at the time – lots of people are drinking and having fun. So, you drink with them, without really thinking about the consequences.
That’s where judgment and impulse control come in. You might drink before you’ve thought about what’s going to happen afterwards. How are you going to get home? Is there a designated driver? What happens if someone drinks too much and gets sick?
Addiction: As a teen, you’re retaining new information and learning new behaviors. What’s interesting is that in your brain, the process of general learning is actually the same process as developing an addiction. So although you might think that you’re just having a few drinks once in a while, you’re exposing your brain to the learning process of drinking alcohol, which can lead to addiction later on.
Impaired brain function: Alcohol doesn’t kill brain cells but it does interrupt the connections between the neurons, such as the part of the brain that is involved in motor coordination.
Because alcohol has serious effects on your body and your brain, you should NEVER ever drive a car after you’ve been drinking; even if you’ve only had one drink. According to the CDC and the US Department of Transportation, alcohol is a factor in approximately 41% of all deaths from motor vehicle crashes. You should NEVER get in a car with someone who has been drinking.
What about the rest of my body?
Drinking to excess has both short and long term effects on your body. Short term risks of drinking alcohol are mostly related to impaired judgment and include injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes and falls, violence, including sexual assault, or risky sexual behaviors.
Additionally, long term alcohol use can lead to chronic illnesses such as:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver disease, including cancer
- Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, or colon
- Depression and anxiety
- Alcohol dependence or alcoholism (see below for more details)
Caffeinated Alcoholic Beverages
Energy drinks are beverages that contain caffeine, stimulants, and sugars. When an energy drink is combined with alcohol, it’s called a caffeinated alcoholic beverage (CAB).
Why are CABs dangerous?
These drinks are dangerous because the caffeine in the drink can mask the depressant effect of alcohol on your body. Alcohol slows down your system, but caffeine picks it up; so you may be able to drink more than you usually would without feeling tired or sleepy and you could end up consuming more alcohol than you normally would.
According to the CDC:
- Drinkers who consume alcohol mixed with energy drinks are 3 times more likely to binge drink than drinkers who don’t.
- Drinkers who consume alcohol with energy drinks are about twice as likely to engage in sex when they normally would not, and to report riding with a driver who was under the influence of alcohol than drinkers who don’t.
Data on CABs are pretty scary. If you’re old enough to drink, be responsible and keep your alcohol and energy drinks separate.
Even though drinking might seem cool and fun, getting into legal trouble because of it is quite the opposite. In the US, it’s illegal for people under the age of 21 to purchase or consume alcohol. The penalties vary from state to state, but if you get caught, you could get into serious legal trouble.
The same goes for drunk driving; driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI).
Some of the possible consequences of being convicted of drunk driving include:
- A criminal record
- Jail time
- Getting your driver’s license restricted, suspended, or taken away
- Having your car taken away by the state
- Increased car insurance rates
- Paying a fine
Aside from these consequences, driving under the influence puts you, your passengers, pedestrians, and other drivers at a serious risk. Getting into an accident because you’ve been drinking is NOT worth harming — or even killing yourself or others.
Alcohol Abuse/Alcohol Dependence
Alcohol abuse occurs when drinking alcohol negatively affects your health, behavior, relationships, and your ability to work and perform daily activities.
Signs of alcohol abuse include:
- Not being able to keep up with responsibilities at school, home, or work
- Continued drinking even though it’s caused relationship problems (with parents/guardians, siblings, friends etc.)
- Getting into legal trouble because of alcohol
- Drinking in risky situations (such as while driving or operating heavy machinery)
Alcohol dependence (also called alcoholism or alcohol addiction) is a chronic disease, and is different from alcohol abuse.
Signs of alcohol dependence include:
- Craving alcohol
- Not being able to limit or stop drinking
- Using alcohol even though it causes problems with your physical or emotional health
If you’re not quite sure if you’re having a problem with alcohol, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is drinking constantly on your mind?
- Do you feel like you need to drink in order to have fun?
- Do you drink by yourself?
- Do you go to parties or social events specifically because you know there’s going to be alcohol there?
- Do you often forget what happened (“blacked out”) while you were drinking?
- Have you gotten into a fight, hurt yourself, or done something that you later regretted while drinking?
- Have you ever gotten in trouble with the police while drinking?
- Have you ever driven a car after you were drinking?
- Have your friends ever made comments about your drinking habits?
- Have you ever missed school or work because you were hung over?
If you’ve answered yes to one or more of these questions, you likely have a drinking problem, and you should talk with your HCP, parent/guardian, or another trusted adult about getting help.
Where can I get help if I have a drinking problem?
If alcohol use is affecting your life in a negative way, or if you feel you can’t get by without it, there are several places you can go for help and support:
- A trusted adult, such as a parent/guardian
- Your health care provider
- A counselor (such as a psychiatrist, psychologists, or social worker)
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): A group of men and women who come together to help each other solve their problems with alcohol and achieve sobriety.
You can also call:
- Alcohol and Drug Helpline: 800-527-5344
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.: 800-622-2255
- National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service: 800-662-4357