Do You Know. Alcohol
booze, sauce, drink What is it?
Alcohol is a ―depressant‖ drug. That means it slows down the parts of your
brain that affect your thinking and behaviour, as well as your breathing and heart rate.
The use of alcohol has been traced as far back as 800 BC, and is common in many
cultures today. Where does alcohol come from?
Alcohol is produced by fermenting, and sometimes
distilling, various fruits, vegetables or grains. Fermented beverages include beer and
wine, which have a maximum alcohol content of about 15 per cent. Distilled beverages,
often called "hard liquor" or "spirits," such as rum, whiskey and vodka, have higher
Although alcohol comes in different forms, it has the same effect. In the following table,
each "standard" drink contains 13.6 grams of alcohol.
* Note that regular beers have an average alcohol content of five per cent, but some
have as much as six or seven per cent, making them stronger than a “standard”
drink. “Light” beers have an average alcohol content of four per cent.
** such as sherry, port or vermouth What does it look like?
Pure (ethyl) alcohol is a clear, colourless liquid. Alcoholic
beverages get their distinctive colours from their other ingredients, and from the process
How does alcohol make you feel?
The way alcohol affects you depends on many
How sensitive you are to alcohol The type and amount of food in your stomach
The environment you’re in How you expect the alcohol to make you feel
Whether you’ve taken any other drugs (illicit, prescription, over-the-counter or
For many people, a single drink of alcohol releases tension and reduces inhibition,
making them feel more at ease and outgoing. Some people feel happy or excited when
they drink, while others become depressed or hostile. Suicide and violent crimes often
Women are generally more sensitive to the effects of alcohol than men, and all adults
become increasingly sensitive to alcohol’s effects as they age. When someone is more
sensitive, it takes less alcohol to cause intoxication, and more time for the body to
eliminate the alcohol consumed.
Early signs of alcohol intoxication include flushed skin, impaired judgment and reduced
inhibition. Continued drinking increases these effects, and causes other effects, such as
impaired attention, reduced muscle control, slowed reflexes, staggering gait, slurred
speech and double or blurred vision. A severely intoxicated person may ―black out,‖ and
have no memory of what was said or done while drinking. Effects of extreme intoxication
include inability to stand, vomiting, stupor, coma and death. How long does the feeling last?
It takes about one hour for the liver of a person
weighing 70 kg (154 lbs.) to process and eliminate eight to 10 grams of alcohol, or about
two-thirds of the alcohol contained in a standard drink. This rate is constant, no matter
how much alcohol has been consumed, or what food or non-alcoholic beverages are
Drinking heavily usually results in a ―hangover,‖ beginning eight to 12 hours after the
last drink. Symptoms can include headache, nausea, diarrhea, shakiness and vomiting. A
hangover is caused in part by acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical that is created as alcohol is
processed by your liver. Other causes include dehydration and changes in hormone
Some people think that having a drink before bed helps them to get to sleep. While
alcohol does bring on sleep more quickly, it disturbs sleep patterns, and causes
wakefulness in the night.
Is alcohol dangerous?
Yes, alcohol can be dangerous in a number of ways.
The impact of alcohol’s effect on judgment, behaviour, attitude and reflexes can range
from embarrassment, to unwanted or high-risk sexual contact, to violence, injury or
death. Alcohol is involved in more regrettable moments, crimes and traffic fatalities than
all other drugs of abuse combined. Young people, who are less familiar with the effects
of alcohol, may be especially prone to act in an impulsive or dangerous manner while
Extreme intoxication can kill, often as the result of the person ―passing out,‖ vomiting
and choking. A person who has been drinking heavily and is unconscious should be laid
on his or her side and watched closely. Clammy skin, low body temperature, slow and
laboured breathing and incontinence are signs of acute alcohol poisoning, which can be
fatal. Seek emergency medical care.
Women who drink during pregnancy risk giving birth to a baby with behaviour problems,
growth deficiency, developmental disability, head and facial deformities, joint and limb
abnormalities and heart defects. The risk of bearing a child with these birth defects
increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. The first trimester may be a time of
greatest risk for the fetus, although there is no time during pregnancy when it is known to
be safe to drink alcohol.
Mixing alcohol with other drugs — prescribed or recreational — can have unpredictable
results. Alcohol may either block the absorption of the other drug, making it less
effective, or it may increase the effect of the other drug, to the point of danger. The
general rule is to never mix alcohol with any other drugs; for exceptions, ask your doctor.
Is there a safe level of drinking? While there is no precise ―safe‖ level of drinking, there
are guidelines for adults who wish to lower the risks of drinking. People who are
pregnant, who have certain medical conditions such as liver disease or mental illness, or
who will be driving a vehicle or operating machinery, should avoid alcohol.
The ―low-risk drinking‖ guidelines suggest spacing drinks an hour apart, and drinking no
more than two standard drinks per drinking occasion. Men should have no more than 14
drinks a week, and women no more than nine. Is alcohol addictive?
It can be. Most alcohol-related illnesses, social problems, accidents
and deaths are caused by ―problem drinking.‖ This term describes alcohol use that causes
problems in a person’s life, but does not include physical dependence. Problem drinking
is four times as common as severe alcohol dependence.
Physical dependence involves tolerance to alcohol’s effects, and withdrawal symptoms
when drinking is stopped. As people develop tolerance, they need more and more alcohol
to produce the desired effect. People who are physically dependent on alcohol can
develop withdrawal symptoms, such as sleeplessness, tremors, nausea and seizures,
within a few hours after their last drink. These symptoms can last from two to seven days
and range from mild to severe, depending of the amount of alcohol consumed and the
period of time over which it was used. Some people experience delirium tremens, or ―the DTs,‖ five to six days after drinking stops. This dangerous syndrome consists of frightening hallucinations, extreme confusion, fever and racing heart. If left untreated, severe alcohol withdrawal can result in death. Treatment for alcohol dependence usually begins by treating withdrawal symptoms, but most people will need additional treatments to help them stop drinking. Even after long periods of abstinence, a person may continue to crave alcohol, and may begin to drink again. Treatment may include residential or outpatient treatment, individual or group therapy, self-help or mutual help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and certain medications, such as naltrexone. Some people respond well to one form of treatment, while others do not. There is no single most effective treatment approach. What are the long-term effects of drinking alcohol? How alcohol affects you in the long term depends on how much and how often you drink. For middle-aged and older adults, as little as one drink of alcohol every other day can help protect against heart disease. On the other hand, heavy drinking raises blood pressure and puts people at risk of stroke and heart failure. Heavy alcohol use can result in appetite loss, sexual impotence or menstrual irregularities, vitamin deficiencies and infections. Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach, which can be painful and is potentially fatal. Alcoholic liver disease is a major cause of illness and death in North America. Alcohol also increases the risk of liver, throat, breast and other cancers. Chronic use of alcohol can damage the brain, which can lead to dementia, difficulties with co-ordination and motor control, and loss of feeling or painful burning in the feet. Alcohol dependence often results in clinical depression, and the rate of suicide among people who are alcohol-dependent is six times that of the general population. Although women’s average lifetime alcohol intake is less than half that of men, women are just as likely as men to develop alcohol-related diseases, and are twice as likely to die from these conditions.
2003 Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. A PAHO/WHO Collaborating Centre.
Fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.
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