Alcohol: what is it?

Alcohol is a liquid produced by fermentation. Further processing produces alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine, cider and spirits.

Alcohol is a depressant drug. This means that it slows down activity of the central nervous system and the messages going between the brain and the body. Depressant drugs do not necessarily make a person feel depressed.

Other names

Booze, grog, piss.

What does it look like?

Pure alcohol has no colour. It has a very strong taste that feels like a burning sensation. Alcoholic drinks vary in colour and taste depending on their ingredients and how they are made.

Why is it used?

In Australia, alcohol is used for social and cultural reasons. Many Australians drink alcohol with meals, to celebrate special occasions and to help them relax and to have fun.

Effects of alcohol

The effects of any drug (including alcohol) vary from person to person. How alcohol affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to it and whether other drugs are taken. The effects of any drug also depend on the amount taken.

After a few drinks — more relaxed, reduced concentration and slower reflexes.

A few more drinks — lowered inhibitions, more confidence, reduced coordination, slurred speech, intense mood (sad, happy, angry).

Still more drinks — confusion, blurred vision, poor muscle control.

More still — nausea, vomiting, sleep.

Even more — possibly coma or death.

There is no safe level of alcohol use. Use of alcohol or other drugs always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug including alcohol.

Immediate effects

The effects of alcohol on the brain occur within five minutes of alcohol being drunk.

Low to moderate dosesHigher doses
Some of the effects that may be experienced after drinking alcohol include:
  • feeling relaxed
  • mild euphoria
  • reduced coordination and slower reflexes
  • lowered inhibitions
  • increased confidence
  • inappropriate sexual or violent behaviour
  • blurred vision
  • slurred speech
  • flushed appearance
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sleep.
When someone drinks heavily over a short period with the intention of becoming drunk, it is sometimes referred to as "binge drinking". Binge drinking is harmful because it results in immediate and severe drunkenness. As well as the health risks, it can lead people to take unnecessary risks and put themselves and others in danger.
Some common effects of binge drinking are:
  • headaches
  • tremors
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • coma
  • death.

Coming down

Hangovers

When someone drinks heavily, they may experience a range of symptoms the following day. These symptoms are called a hangover and may include:

  • headache
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • diarrhoea
  • reduced appetite
  • trembling
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • dehydration (dry mouth, extreme thirst, dry eyes)
  • trouble concentrating
  • anxiety
  • difficulty sleeping.

Sobering up

Sobering up takes time. The liver gets rid of about one standard drink an hour. Cold showers, exercise, black coffee, mints, fresh air or vomiting will not speed up the process. Someone who drinks a lot at night, may still be affected by alcohol the following day.

Long-term effects

Some of the long-term effects of drinking more than the recommended guidelines include:

  • brain injury
  • loss of memory
  • confusion
  • hallucinations
  • cancer
  • high blood pressure
  • irregular pulse
  • enlarged heart
  • greater chance of infections, including tuberculosis
  • inflamed lining
  • bleeding
  • ulcers
  • severe swelling and pain.
  • hepatitis
  • cirrhosis
  • liver cancer
  • inflammation causing pain
  • changes in red blood cells
  • weakness
  • loss of muscle tissue
  • tingling and loss of sensation in hands and feet
  • flushing
  • sweating
  • bruising
  • males: impotence, shrinking of testicles, damaged/reduced sperm
  • females: greater risk of gynaecological problems, damage to foetus if pregnant.

Other effects of alcohol use

Taking alcohol with other drugs

The effects of mixing alcohol with other drugs, including over-the-counter or prescribed medications, can be unpredictable and dangerous. Always read the instructions or seek advice from a health professional before mixing alcohol with medications.

  • Mixing alcohol with other depressant drugs such as benzodiazepines or GHB can cause a person’s breathing and heart rate to decrease to dangerous levels and increase the risk of overdose. Drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis together can increase the chances the unpleasant effects, including nausea, vomiting and feelings of panic, anxiety and paranoia.
  • Combining alcohol with stimulant drugs places the body under great stress and can mask some of the effects of alcohol. For example, if a person combines alcohol with energy drinks that contain caffeine (a stimulant) they will still be affected by the alcohol but may not feel as relaxed or sleepy. They may feel more confident, take more risks and increase the chances of experiencing alcohol-related harm such as drinking too much or being injured in a fight or accident.

Some tips for controlling your drinking

Be aware of how alcohol affects you as an individual.

If you know you will be drinking alcohol, make sure you plan ahead.

Staying safe

If you are partying with a group of friends, agree that one of the group will not drink, and will be responsible for driving and looking out for the group generally. Of course, each person is ultimately responsible for his or her own behaviour. Make sure you can call a member of your family or a friend if you need help.

Reducing your drinking

  • Set limits for yourself and stick to them. Don’t let other people pressure you into drinking more than you want.
  • Quench your thirst first. Have a non-alcoholic drink first if you are thirsty.
  • Drink slowly. Take sips, not gulps.
  • Drink from a small glass. Some wine glasses can hold several standard drinks.
  • Be aware of exactly what you are drinking. Remember that 'alcopops' (sweet flavoured ready-to-drink or pre-mixed spirits/wine) can be quite strong, even though they don’t taste like strong alcohol.
  • Try a low alcohol/non-alcoholic alternative.
  • Eat before and while drinking, but avoid salty snacks, which will make you thirsty.
  • Avoid getting into 'rounds' or 'shouts'. They are sure to make you drink faster, and drink more, so that you can keep up with your friends.
  • Avoid 'top ups'. Drink one drink at a time to keep track of how much you are drinking.
  • Stay busy. Don’t just sit and drink. Dancing, playing music or games can take the focus away from drinking.

For more information, please click on the Australian Drug Foundation's DrugInfo Clearinghouse web site link below.
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References

1. Australian Drug Foundation. Drug Info. Alcohol facts. Last updated 30 June 2012. http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/drug-facts/alcohol (accessed Jan 2013).
2. Australian Drug Foundation. Drug Info. The facts about binge drinking. Number 1.10 Revised June 2009. http://www.druginfo.adf.org.au/fact-sheets/the-facts-about-binge-drinking-web-fact-sheet (accessed Aug 2013).
Australian Drug Foundation (ADF)