Healthy lives for young people
Wellbeing

Alcohol

Some people find drinking alcohol fun and exciting, but it also comes with risk. Find out key information about alcohol and how to stay healthy, safe, in control and within the law. 

What is alcohol? 

Alcohol is a type of drink which contain the chemical ethanol.  

Alcoholic drinks sometimes feel like a stimulant because they can make people feel energised, but alcohol is actually a depressant. This means it slows down your central nervous system, not that it makes you depressed – though it’s important to know that alcohol can affect your mood and mental health. 

Alcohol and the law 

It’s important to know what’s legal in your country when it comes to drinking alcohol. 

In the UK, it is legal to buy and consume alcohol when you are 18 years old. It is against the law to buy or attempt to buy alcohol if you are under 18, to sell alcohol to anyone under 18 or for someone over 18 to buy alcohol for anyone under 18 (except in very specific circumstances).  

More information about the law on alcohol and under 18s.

It’s your choice

Remember: drinking alcohol is a choice. If you drink, when you drink, what you drink and how much are all decisions that only you can make. You have the right to choose not to drink alcohol, and you don’t need to explain that choice to anyone. 

Why do people drink alcohol?

People drink alcohol for various reasons, such as:  

  • to socialise and relax  
  • to experiment  
  • to escape feelings of depression, anxiety, stress and/or insecurity  
  • to fit in to a certain group dynamic   
  • if they’re under pressure from friends 

Peer pressure

People will have different opinions on drinking. It is fine to have these opinions, but no one should ever feel under pressure to do something that we don’t want to do.   

Some people might feel tempted to drink because their friends tell them to. It is difficult to think a friend might not have your best interests at heart, but real friends should respect your decision to say ‘no’ and not pressure you to do something.   

If you are feeling pressured to drink, you could try:  

If the pressure is becoming too much, think carefully about whether these are people you want to be spending time with. If they won’t respect your decision, it suggests they aren’t prioritising your happiness and safety.  

If your friend is being pressured

If you have a friend who is on the receiving end of peer pressure, it is a good idea to talk one-on-one and discuss your feelings about alcohol. You may both benefit from some support and may find it easier to stand your ground together. 

Staying safe when drinking alcohol

Lots of people enjoy the fact that drinking alcohol can make them lose their inhibitions. However, this can cause them to rely on alcohol to help their confidence in social situations.  

Loss of inhibitions can also affect a person’s judgement and result in them doing and saying things they regret. Feeling less inhibited can also result in people engaging in more risky behaviours than if they were sober. This includes risky sexual behaviour.  

Alcohol and consent

The sexual offenses act is very clear about the impact of alcohol & drugs on someone’s ability to consent: “If they are drunk or high, then they may not have the capacity to consent to sex and this includes any kind of sexual activity, like kissing or fondling”.   
 
Someone should be fully coordinated and responsive before you engage in any kind of sexual activity with them. If you are unsure if they are drunk or high, be cautious and wait until they have sobered up to check for consent. Read more about giving and getting consent
 
If someone forces you to do something you do not want to do of a sexual nature, it is never your fault and it is not OK. You should speak to someone you trust so that you can get help and support. 

Drink spiking

Spiking is when someone puts alcohol or drugs in a person’s drink without their knowledge. It is a serious crime, and can be very harmful for a variety of reasons including making a person vulnerable to theft, sexual assault and severe inebriation.   
 
It can be a scary experience and it’s important to be able to recognise the signs your drink has been spiked or how to help someone you suspect has been a victim. You can read about drink spiking in detail here. 

Contraception choices

Alcohol can affect our ability make decisions, and this includes decisions about contraception and safe sex. Carrying condoms is a great idea to make sure you are prepared for a sexual encounter and can help you to make safer choices about sex.  

Remember: condoms are the only type of contraception that also protects against STIs, so even if pregnancy isn’t a concern, they are still important!  

Find out more about condoms

If you are going to drink alcohol, it is important to know what you can do to keep yourself and others safe. Visit the Drinkaware website for information on how to stay safe when drinking. 

Alcohol intake is measured in ‘units’. The government has guidelines on how many units of alcohol are recommended each day.  

  • Men or people with a penis should have no more than three to four units per day 
  • Women or people with a vagina should have no more than two to three units per day 

However, as alcohol affects everyone differently, you may find that this recommendation is too much for you. 

It takes your liver one hour to process one unit of alcohol. 

One unit = half a pint of beer (3.5% alcohol) OR a single vodka (25ml at 40% alcohol) and coke OR a small glass of wine (125ml at 8% alcohol). 

Use the Drinkaware alcohol units calculator to calculate your units in your drinks. 

Binge drinking

‘Binge drinking’ is when you drink twice the daily recommendation in one session. If you drink more than 20 units in one session, you are at risk of alcohol poisoning. 

The effects of alcohol

Alcohol can affect how you feel and how you behave. Alcohol affects everyone differently, and there are lots of factors that need to be taken in to account. This means it’s very hard to predict how your mind and body are going to react to alcohol at any given point. 

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) refers to the percent of alcohol in a person’s blood stream. A person will behave differently based on their BAC level. There is no simple way to calculate BAC – weight, sex, time since your last drink and amount you drank all affect BAC levels.  

  • Up to 0.05g% – You may experience feelings of wellbeing, be more talkative, relaxed and confident. 
  • Between .05 and .08g% – You may be at risk of impaired judgement and reduced inhibitions.  
  • Between .08 and .15g% – You may be experiencing slurred speech, impaired balance and coordination. Unstable emotions, nausea and vomiting are possible.  
  • Between .15 and .30g% – You may be unable to walk without assistance. You may lose control of your bladder and/or consciousness and breathing may be affected. 
  • Above .30g% – May put you in a coma or result in death. 

What this means is that, while drinking alcohol can be fun in small quantities, it can be very dangerous if too much of it is consumed – and what counts as ‘too much’ is different for every person, meaning it can be very hard to predict or tell if you have been drinking too much or too quickly.  

Short term effects

Nausea and stomach problems

Alcohol irritates the lining of the throat, stomach, and small and large intestines, and this can cause you to throw up. This irritation is even worse when you drink on an empty stomach (without eating first).  

If alcohol causes the small intestine to become inflamed it can affect the absorption of nutrients passing into the large intestine and lead to diarrhoea. 

Hangovers

After a night of drinking, it is common for people to feel ill the next day – this is known as a hangover. The main reason for feeling bad the next day is dehydration. Alongside this, the chemicals that are in whatever alcoholic drink a person had can contribute to feeling unwell. It usually takes most of the next day and drinking lots of water to get a hangover to pass.  

Your mood

Alcohol can make people feel happy and carefree while under the influence, but it’s also a depressant. This means it can make people feel low or anxious, which can in turn have a negative effect on their relationships with friends, family or partners. 

Your sleep

Alcohol can make you sleepy, but don’t be fooled: drinking alcohol will often give you a restless and disturbed night’s sleep, and can cause or worsen insomnia in the long term.   

Long term effects

Social effects

Alcohol misuse can cause arguments, breakdowns and depressionWhen alcohol becomes a permanent feature in a person’s life, it’s not just the drinker that feels the effect. Surrounding family and friends do too. 

Drinking habits can often become a source of arguments and lead to relationship issuesEmotional and financial consequences are also common. These in turn can lead to unemploymentdebt and family and relationship breakdowns.

Alcohol dependence

Alcohol can be addictive, both physically and psychologically. This means that you might find yourself relying on alcohol in social situations, drinking when you are by yourself, or getting physical withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink. Find out more about alcohol dependence.

Depression

Alcohol meddles with the finely tuned chemicals in your body and brain, and with regular use can reduce your levels of serotonin – the chemical that helps regulate your mood. It also affects your dopamine levels – the chemical which plays a role in how you feel pleasure. 

While a drink can leave you feeling happy and excited for a short period of time, using alcohol when you feel down or anxious can actually result in your negative feelings becoming worse. This can lead to long periods of low mood or depression. 

Liver disease

Your liver helps process the alcohol you consume and is the main place where alcohol is metabolised (which means processed and removed from your body).  

Regularly drinking too much alcohol can result in liver tissue being slowly damaged and replaced by scar tissue.   

With prolonged alcohol misuse the liver eventually may not be able to heal itself and this can lead to serious problems, even death. 

Other health issues

There are various long term health issues that can be brought on by regular drinking such as heart disease, lung problems, cancer and fertility issues. Find out more about the long term health effects of drinking alcohol.  

Cutting down

If you feel like you are drinking too much and that alcohol is affecting your health, mental health or other parts of your life, you might want to consider cutting down. 

There are lots of benefits to cutting down on alcohol, such as: 

  • Feeling better in the morning 
  • Being less tired during the day 
  • Feeling happier or less low or anxious 
  • Improvements to your skin 
  • Feeling fitter 

So, if you feel like your drinking is getting out of hand, here are 8 simple tips to help you cut down: 

  • Set a limit: Before you start drinking, set a limit on how much you’re going to drink. 
  • Set yourself a budget: Only take a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol. 
  • Tell people: Tell friends and family that you’re cutting down, that it’s important to you and you’d like their support. 
  • Take it a day at a time: Cut back a little each day. That way, every day you manage to cut back is a success. 
  • Make it a smaller one: You can still enjoy a drink but go for smaller sizes. 
  • Watch the strength: Cut down the alcohol by swapping your drink for something with a lower strength. This is expressed as a percentage (%) and you’ll find this information on the bottle, or menu if you are in a bar or restaurant. Alternatively, try adding a mixer. Your drink will last longer and won’t be as strong. 
  • Hydrate: Drink a pint of water before you start drinking, and don’t use alcohol to quench your thirst. Have a soft drink instead. You can also try having a soft drink or glass of water between alcoholic drinks. 
  • Drink free days: Have the odd day each week when you don’t have an alcoholic drink. 

Alcohol dependence 

If you’ve experienced any of the following symptoms in the past twelve months, you may be alcohol dependent. Keep in mind, alcohol dependence isn’t just limited to physical effects, it also includes behavioural changes.  

  • Requiring more alcohol than usual to ‘get drunk’. 
  • Becoming aware of alcohol cravings (particularly within 5 hours of waking up). 
  • Experiencing physiological withdrawal symptoms such as tremors/shakes, sweating, vomiting and nausea, rapid heart rate, anxiety and insomnia when drinking has ceased or reduced. Other symptoms can include agitation, seizures, disorientation and even hallucinations.  
  • Using alcohol to reduce the symptoms listed above.  
  • A relapse into problematic alcohol use after a period of abstinence. 
  • Finding you are preoccupied with where the next drink will come from, and planning your day around buying or drinking alcohol. 
  • Drinking in spite of negative consequences in your personal and professional life and your needs are almost entirely limited to those involving alcohol. 
  • You have repeatedly tried to cut down or stop but have found it too difficult to do. 

Getting help

There is a lot of support available if you, or someone you know, needs advice and support on unhealthy behaviours around alcohol misuse and quitting drinking. With the right help and support, it’s possible for someone to get sober and stay that way.  

A GP is a good place to start. They can discuss your problems with you and get you into treatment. They may offer you treatment at the practice or refer you to your local alcohol service.  

If you’re not comfortable talking to a GP, you can approach your local alcohol treatment service yourself. Visit the Drinkaware website to find local support services. 

As well as the NHS, there are charities and private drug and alcohol treatment organisations that can help you. Private treatment can be very expensive, but sometimes people get referrals through their local NHS service.  

If you’re having trouble finding the right sort of help, you can:  

Staff at Brook services can help you access help with drugs, alcohol and smoking if you ask them to. All of our staff are friendly and non-judgemental, and will do their best to help you find the support that’s right for you. 

If you are worried about someone 

It can be difficult to know what to do if you are worried about someone’s drinking. Aside from speaking to a trusted adult, you could start by letting the person know that you’re worried about them. They may not realise they have an alcohol problem, and they might not know how their behaviour is affecting you. If they don’t want to talk to you about it, you could suggest they talk to someone else.  
 
Read Childline’s advice about helping a friend. 

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