People have been drinking alcoholic beverages since prehistoric times. The discovery of the distillation process during the 12th century made it possible to make drinks with higher alcohol content (hard liquor) than can be achieved by fermentation alone.
Alcoholic drinks have different amounts of alcohol in them -- beer is about 5% alcohol, wine is usually 12 - 15% alcohol, and hard liquor is about 45% alcohol.
Alcohol and caffeine are the two most widely used drug substances in the world. Alcohol use is not only an adult problem. Most American high school seniors have consumed an alcoholic drink within the past month, despite the fact that the legal drinking age is 21 years old in the U.S.
About 20% of teens are "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
Studies have shown that up to 6% of teens in the United States can be considered dependent or abusing alcohol. This means they have withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop or reduce their drinking, and they drink compulsively despite negative consequences.
A person's alcohol use is primarily influenced by attitudes developed during the childhood and teen years. It is impacted by:
- Family relationships
- Parents' attitudes and behaviors toward drinking
- Peer influence
There is likely a genetic (hereditary) tendency to alcohol use-related disorders.
THE IMMEDIATE EFFECTS OF ALCOHOL
Alcohol is absorbed into your bloodstream quickly. The absorption rate depends on the amount and type of food in your stomach. For example, high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods lessen the absorption rates. A carbonated alcoholic drink, like champagne, will be absorbed faster than a non-carbonated drink.
The effects of alcohol may appear within 10 minutes and peak at approximately 40 - 60 minutes. Alcohol stays in the bloodstream until it is broken down by the liver. If a person consumes alcohol at a faster rate than the liver can break it down, the blood alcohol level rises.
Each state has its own legal definition of alcohol intoxication, which is defined by blood alcohol level. The legal limit usually falls between 0.08 and 0.10 in most states. Different levels lead to different effects.
The following is a list of blood alcohol levels and associated effects, although people who drink alcohol frequently may not experience these effects until higher blood alcohol levels are reached.
- 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
Alcohol depresses your breathing rate, heart rate, and the control mechanisms in your brain. The effects include:
- Impaired short-term memory
- Reduced attention span
- Reduced inhibitions, which may lead to embarrassing behavior
- Slower thought processes
Alcohol increases the risks 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 diseases (STDs)
- Suicide and homicide
If a pregnant woman drinks, alcohol can adversely affect the developing fetus. Alcohol can cause birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome (a disorder marked by mental retardation and behavior problems).
If you drink alcohol, it is best to do so in moderation. This is defined as not causing intoxication, and consuming no more than 1 beer, 1 glass of wine, or 1 shot of liquor per day if you are a woman and no more than 2 if you are a man. Studies have shown that wine may be beneficial to health, but is unhealthy when consumed in large amounts.
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 at all 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
David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc., and David B. Merrill, MD, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, NY.