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Alcohol use and safe drinking

Alcohol use involves drinking beer, wine, or hard liquor.

See also:

Alternative Names

Beer consumption; Wine consumption; Hard liquor consumption; Safe drinking

Information

Alcohol is one of the most widely used drug substances in the world.

TEEN DRINKING

Alcohol use is not only an adult problem. Most American high school seniors have had an alcoholic drink within the past month, despite the fact that the legal drinking age is 21 years old in the U.S.

About 1 in 5 teens are considered "problem drinkers." This means that they:

  • Get drunk
  • Have accidents related to alcohol use
  • Get into trouble with the law, family members, friends, school, or dates due to alcohol

For more information, see: Alcoholism and alcohol abuse

THE EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL

Alcoholic drinks have different amounts of alcohol in them:

  • Beer is about 5% alcohol, although some beers can have more.
  • Wine is usually 12 - 15% alcohol.
  • Hard liquor is about 45% alcohol.

Alcohol gets into your bloodstream quickly.

The amount and type of food in your stomach can change how quickly this occurs. For example, high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods can make your body absorb alcohol more slowly.

Certain types of alcoholic drinks get into your bloodstream faster. A carbonated (fizzy) alcoholic drink, such as champagne, will be absorbed faster than a non-carbonated drink.

Alcohol slows your breathing rate, heart rate, and how well your brain functions. These effects may appear within 10 minutes and peak at around 40 - 60 minutes. Alcohol stays in your bloodstream until it is broken down by the liver. The amount of alcohol in your blood is called your "blood alcohol level." If you drink alcohol faster than the liver can break it down, this level will rise.

Your blood alcohol level is used to legally define whether or not you are "drunk." The blood alcohol legal limit usually falls between 0.08 and 0.10 in most states. Below is a list of blood alcohol levels and the likely symptoms.

  • 0.05 -- reduced inhibitions
  • 0.10 -- slurred speech
  • 0.20 -- euphoria and motor impairment
  • 0.30 -- confusion
  • 0.40 -- stupor
  • 0.50 -- coma
  • 0.60 -- respiratory paralysis and death

Note: You can have symptoms of "being drunk" at blood alcohol levels below the legal definition of being drunk. Also, people who drink alcohol frequently may not have symptoms until higher blood alcohol levels are reached.

HEALTH RISKS OF ALCOHOL

Alcohol increases the risk of:

  • Alcoholism or alcohol dependence
  • Falls, drownings, and other accidents
  • Head, neck, stomach, and breast cancers
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Risky sex behaviors, unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted ilnfections (STIs)
  • Suicide and homicide

Drinking during pregnancy can harm the developing baby. Severe birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome are possible.

RESPONSIBLE DRINKING

If you drink alcohol, it is best to do so in moderation. Moderation means the drinking is not getting you intoxicated, or drunk, and you are drinking no more than 1 drink per day if you are a woman and no more than 2 if you are a man. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.

Here are some ways to drink responsibly, provided you do not have a drinking problem, are of legal age to drink alcohol, and are not pregnant:

  • NEVER drink alcohol and drive a car.
  • If you are going to drink, have a designated driver, or plan an alternative way home, such as a taxi or bus.
  • Do not drink on an empty stomach. Snack before and while drinking alcohol.

If you are taking medication, including over-the-counter drugs, check with your doctor before drinking alcohol. Alcohol can intensify the effects of many drugs and can interact with other drugs, making them ineffective or dangerous, or making you sick.

Do NOT drink if you have a history of alcohol abuse or alcoholism.

If alcoholism runs in your family, you may be at increased risk of developing alcoholism yourself, and may want to avoid drinking alcohol altogether.

CALL YOUR HEALTH CARE PROVIDER IF:

  • You are concerned about your personal alcohol use or that of a family member
  • You are interested in more information regarding alcohol use, alcohol abuse , or support groups
  • You are unable to reduce or stop your alcohol consumption, in spite of attempts to stop drinking

Other resources include:

  • Local Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-anon/alateen groups (See: Alcoholism - resources )
  • Local hospitals
  • Public or private mental health agencies
  • School or work counselors
  • Student or employee health centers

References

US Preventative Services Task Force. Recommendation statement: Screening and behavioral counseling interventions in primary care to reduce alcohol misuse. Rockville, MD; April 2004.

In the clinic. Alcohol use. Ann Intern Med. 2009 Mar 3;150(5).

Updated: 6/4/2012

A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, and David R. Eltz. Previously reviewed by David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine (3/20/2011).


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