What is alcohol?
Alcohol is a drug that acts as a depressant, meaning that it slows down the messages that are travelling from a person’s brain to the rest of their body. Because alcohol is slowing down the messages travelling through a person’s body, it can affect and impair their judgement, coordination and sight. This can result in a lower ability to respond to unexpected situations and a higher chance of accidents and/or assaults.
Other terms for alcohol: Booze, grog, piss, liquor, goon, drink.
How do you know if alcohol use is becoming a problem?
Many people use alcohol in social and recreational situations which can promote the belief that it is not a drug. However, just like other drugs, alcohol can become both physically and emotionally addictive. There are varying degrees of alcohol dependence, and they are not always linked to excessive amounts of alcohol consumption.
It may be that a person begins to drink during every evening meal, goes to the pub with work mates at the end of every shift, or feels as though it’s acceptable to have a weekend bender (binge drink) in order to unwind and relax. These situations represent levels of alcohol use that can result in negative physical and emotional affects on a person's long-term health and wellbeing. Warning signs that a person is experiencing dependency on alcohol include:
- Urges to drink alcohol that are so strong they overtake a person’s thoughts.
- Planning social, family and work events around alcohol.
- Drinking alcohol as soon as you wake up or experiencing the urge to drink when you wake up.
- Finding it difficult to stop drinking once you have started.
- Experiencing cravings and withdrawal when you haven't had alcohol (see below).
How do you know when alcohol use is becoming a problem?
Although drinking alcohol can initially make a person feel good and excited, it can have serious effects on a person’s mood, behaviour, physical wellbeing and mental health. These effects can vary significantly from person to person, depending on the amount of alcohol that is drunk, how quickly it is drunk, a person’s overall physical health and body type, and whether it is used in combination with other drugs (e.g., cannabis, ecstasy, etc.)
Some short-term effects of using alcohol include:
- Feelings of relaxation.
- Loss of inhibitions.
- Increased confidence.
- Feeling happier, sadder or more angry, depending on a person’s mood.
- Increased risky or inappropriate behaviour.
- Reduced coordination and sight.
- Slowed reaction times.
- Confusion and impaired judgement.
- Nausea or vomiting.
In situations where a large quantity of alcohol is drunk in a short period of time, the short-term effects can include:
- Slower breathing and heart rate.
- Sensitivity to noise and light.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Passing out.
- Blackouts and/or temporary memory loss.
- Alcohol poisoning.
- Coma (rare cases).
- Death (rare cases).
Sobering up from the effects of alcohol and its presence in a person’s body takes time, with 1 standard drink taking approximately 1 hour for the liver in a person’s body to process. People often believe that certain behaviours such as drinking coffee, having some water, taking a cold shower, exercising to sweat, vomiting or getting fresh air will help to speed up the sobering process. However, while this may help to reduce the symptoms of alcohol, it does not remove the presence of alcohol from the bloodstream any faster.
Although alcohol is the most commonly used recreational drug in Australia, regular and excessive alcohol use can impact wellbeing, create psychological, social, financial, emotional and other health-related problems. It can also impede a person’s ability to be a caregiver and result in chronic or permanent organ damage. Some of the long-term effects of using alcohol include:
- Increased risk of diabetes and obesity.
- Increased psychological effects (i.e., anxiety and depression).
- Organ damage (i.e., brain, heart, liver and reproductive organ damage).
- Increased risk of infections.
- Skin-related issues.
- Sleep-related issues (i.e., insomnia).
- Alcohol dependence/addiction.
- Increased risk of varying forms of cancer (i.e., liver cancer, throat cancer).
- Financial, social and work-related problems.
- Serious birth defects if used during pregnancy.
What should you do in the case of harmful alcohol use or an overdose?
If you are unable to wake someone up or you are worried that you or someone you know has sustained a head injury from an alcohol related fall, seek medical attention immediately by calling an ambulance on Triple Zero (000). Do not panic or ignore it.
If you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol overdose...
Phone Triple Zero (000) for an ambulance immediately and tell the operator that there has been an overdose, especially if the person complains of chest pains, breathing difficulties or overheating.
If you are calling about your own use, do not try to hide the fact that you have consumed alcohol – be completely honest about the amount you have had and whether you have taken any other drugs. Whilst waiting for emergency services, inform a friend or family member who can support you during this time.
If you are calling for someone you know, you can help them by asking them what they are experiencing and what is causing them distress and immediately informing emergency services.
When on the phone to Triple Zero (000), make sure you report as much information as you can think of including the person’s age, weight, whether they have mixed alcohol with other drugs and how much alcohol has been consumed. The quicker and more accurate the information that is passed on, the easier it is to help someone experiencing adverse effects of alcohol.
Stay with the person and call a friend or family member for assistance immediately. Usually the police will not be informed and will not attend unless ambulance officers feel their safety or the safety of others or a child is at risk, the person cannot be resuscitated, or a crime has been committed (e.g., theft or violence).
The priority is making sure the person gets the right help immediately in an emergency.
How can you reduce the risks associated with alcohol misuse?
The best way to reduce your risk associated with alcohol dependence is to ask for help. If you or a friend think that your alcohol use might be problematic, it is a good idea to make sure that someone you trust is nearby when you are asking for help. Drug dependence of any kind can make people feel anxious or scared about giving up the drug, which is a normal response to have but it often results in the cycle continuing.
Giving up drinking alcohol can be challenging because the body becomes ‘tolerant’ or used to functioning with the drug. This can mean that stopping alcohol use results in what are referred to as ‘withdrawal’ symptoms. These are the things that can happen to your body as it is working out how to function without alcohol in its system. These symptoms can be unpleasant, differing from person to person and ranging from mild to severe. Some alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Sweating, fever or chills.
- Depression and anxiety.
- Issues with sleep (e.g., insomnia).
- Seizures or fits (rare cases).
What is a standard drink?
There are a wide variety of alcoholic beverages that differ in the amount of alcohol they contain. The higher the content of alcohol in a beverage, the longer it takes for a person’s body to process and remove it from the bloodstream.
In Australia, the amount of alcohol that is in a glass, can, or bottle is often referred to in 'standard drinks'. Counting standard drinks enables people to safely measure the amount of alcohol that can be drunk. One standard drink is always equal to 10g of alcohol. For example a 375ml bottle of mid-strength beer is equivalent to one standard drink.
Created by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol recommend the following:
- Children and young people under the age of 18 should not drink alcohol.
- For healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks per day.
- Women who are planning a pregnancy or who are pregnant should not drink any alcohol.
- Breastfeeding mothers should avoid drinking alcohol as it is safest for their babies.
The legal drinking age in Australia is 18 years of age, so it is illegal to sell or get alcohol for anyone under 18 years of age, unless you are the parent or primary caregiver. It is also an offence to drink or carry alcohol in designated alcohol-free zones. Alcohol laws are different depending on the state or territory that a person lives in. If you are interested in understanding the restrictions and laws on alcohol use in your state or territory, please look at the following:
The level of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream is referred to as Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC), with a BAC of 0.05% being the legal alcohol limit in Australia for most people. A BAC of 0.05% means that for every 100mls of blood there is 0.05g of alcohol. The BAC level in a person can be influenced by a wide range of factors including:
- Body size.
- Body fat percentage.
- How much food has been eaten.
- How quickly the body processes alcohol.
- How often alcohol is consumed.
Australian guidelines on staying below a BAC of 0.05% state that:
- For males of an average body size: no more than 2 standard drinks in the first hour and 1 standard drink per hour after that.
- For females of an average body size: no more than 1 standard drink per hour.
However, these are just guidelines and do not guarantee that a person’s BAC level will be under the legal limit even if you follow these guidelines.
You can be tested by police during roadside stops, and if you are over the legal BAC limit (0.05%), it is a serious criminal offence. If you are involved in an accident whilst driving under the influence of alcohol, you may face lengthy jail time.
Where can you get help for your alcohol use?
If alcohol use is a problem for you or someone you know and you would like to speak with someone to have your questions answered or to get advice on what to do next, call the Alcohol & Drug Foundation Information Line on 1300 858 584.