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Alcohol

Also known as: Booze, Brew, Liquor, and Sauce
Provided by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Revised March 2020

What is alcohol use disorder?

Alcohol also known as: Booze, Brew, Liquor, and Sauce

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic relapsing brain disorder characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. AUD ranges from mild to severe.

How does alcohol affect the teenage brain?

When teens drink, alcohol affects their brains in the short-term, and repeated drinking can also have an impact on the brain down the road, especially as it grows and develops.

Short-Term Consequences of Intoxication (being “drunk”):

  • An intoxicated person has a harder time making good decisions.  They also have impaired motor coordination.
  • A person is less aware that his/her behavior may be inappropriate or unsafe.
  • A person has a greater risk of being injured from falls or vehicle crashes.
  • A person may be more likely to engage in unsafe behavior, including drinking and driving, unsafe sexual behavior (like unprotected sex) and aggressive or violent behavior.
  • A person is less likely to recognize potential danger.

Long-Term Consequences as the Teen Brain Develops:

  • Research suggests that drinking during the teen years could interfere with normal brain development and change the brain in ways that:
    • Have negative effects on information processing and learning.
    • Increase the risk of developing alcohol use disorder later in life.

How does alcohol affect a person’s body?

When people drink alcohol, they may temporarily feel elated and happy, but they should not be fooled. As blood alcohol level rises, the effects on the body—and the potential risks—multiply.

  • Inhibitions and memory become affected, so people may say and do things that they will regret later and possibly not remember doing at all.
  • Decision-making skills are affected, so people may be at greater risk for driving under the influence—and risking an alcohol-related traffic crash—or making unwise decisions about sex.
  • Aggression can increase, potentially leading to everything from verbal abuse to physical fights.
  • Coordination and physical control are also impacted. When drinking leads to loss of balance, slurred speech, and blurred vision, even normal activities can become more dangerous.

Consuming a dangerously high amount of alcohol can also lead to alcohol overdose and death. When people drink too much, they may eventually pass out (lose consciousness). Reflexes like gagging and breathing can be suppressed. That means people who have had too much alcohol could vomit and choke, or just stop breathing completely. Vulnerability to overdose increases if the teen is already on a sedative-hypnotic (such as Valium, Xanax, or Benadryl) or pain medication.

What are the negative consequences of underage drinking?

Underage drinking poses a range of risks and negative consequences. It is dangerous because it:

Causes many deaths

Based on data from 2006–2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that, on average, alcohol is a factor in the deaths of 4,358 young people under age 21 each year. This includes:

  • 1,580 deaths from motor vehicle crashes
  • 1,269 from homicides
  • 245 from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning
  • 492 from suicides

Causes many injuries

Drinking alcohol can cause kids to have accidents and get hurt. In 2011 alone, about 188,000 people under age 21 visited an emergency room for alcohol-related injuries.

Impairs judgment

Drinking can lead to poor decisions about engaging in risky behavior, including drinking and driving, sexual activity (such as unprotected sex), and aggressive or violent behavior.

Increases the risk of physical and sexual assault

Underage youth who drink are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault after drinking than others their age who do not drink.

Can lead to other problems

Drinking may cause youth to have trouble in school or with the law. Drinking alcohol also is associated with the use of other drugs.

Increases the risk of alcohol problems later in life

Research shows that people who start drinking before the age of 15 are 4 times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.

Interferes with brain development

Research shows that young people’s brains keep developing well into their 20s. Alcohol can alter this development, potentially affecting both brain structure and function. This may cause cognitive or learning problems and/or make the brain more prone to alcohol dependence. This is especially a risk when people start drinking young and drink heavily.

What is alcohol overdose, and how can I help someone who may be suffering from it?

An alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions—such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control—begin to shut down. Alcohol overdose can lead to permanent brain damage or death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85 people in the U.S. ages 15–24 died from alcohol overdose in 2018.1

Symptoms of alcohol overdose include:

  • Mental confusion, stupor
  • Difficulty remaining conscious, or inability to wake up
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Dulled responses, such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking)
  • Extremely low body temperature, bluish skin color, or paleness

Know the danger signals and, if you suspect that someone has an alcohol overdose, call 911 for help immediately. Do not wait for the person to have all the symptoms, and be aware that a person who has passed out can die. Don’t play doctor—cold showers, hot coffee, and walking do not reverse the effects of alcohol overdose and could actually make things worse.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Underlying Cause of Death 1999-2018 on CDC WONDER Online Database, X45, Y15, released 2019. Available at http://wonder.cdc.gov.

What is an alcohol blackout?

Alcohol-related blackouts are gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while they were intoxicated. These gaps happen when a person drinks enough alcohol to temporarily block the transfer of memories from short-term to long-term storage—known as memory consolidation—in a brain area called the hippocampus.

How many teens drink alcohol?

Alcohol is the most commonly used substance by teens. However, teens’ alcohol use continues to drop. In 2019, rates of past-year alcohol use by students in 10th and 12th grades were at a 5-year low.

Rates of binge drinking among students in 10th and 12th grades were also at a 5-year low. (Binge drinking is defined as drinking five or more drinks in a row in the past 2 weeks.) According to the  Monitoring the Future study, 14.4 percent of students in 12th grade reported binge drinking in 2019, compared to 19.4 percent in 2014. Among students in 10th grade, 8.5 percent reported binge drinking compared to 12.6 percent in 2014.1

Monitoring the Future 2019: Alcohol use continues its decline. See table below for numerical representation

The chart below shows the percentage of teens who used alcohol in 2019.

Swipe left or right to scroll.

Monitoring the Future Study: Trends in Prevalence of Alcohol for 8th Graders, 10th Graders, and 12th Graders; 2019 (in percent)*
Drug Time Period 8th Graders 10th Graders 12th Graders
Alcohol Lifetime 24.50 43.10 58.50
Past Year 19.30 37.70 52.10
Past Month 7.90 18.40 29.30
Daily 0.20 0.60 [1.70]

* Data in brackets indicate statistically significant change from the previous year.

For more statistics on teen drug use, see NIDA’s Monitoring the Future study.

1 National Institute on Drug Abuse. Vaping of marijuana on the rise among teens [Press release]. Rockville, MD. December 2019. Available at https://www.drugabuse.gov/news-events/news-releases/2019/12/vaping-marijuana-rise-among-teens.

Is underage drinking a serious health problem?

Underage drinking is drinking alcohol before a person turns age 21, which is the minimum legal drinking age in the United States. Underage drinking is a serious problem, as you may have seen from your friends’ or your own experiences. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance of abuse among young people in America, and drinking when you’re underage puts your health and safety at risk.

Why do teens drink alcohol?

Teens drink for a variety of reasons. Some teens want to experience new things. Others feel pressured into drinking by peers. And some are looking for a way to cope with stress or other problems. Unfortunately, drinking will only make any problems a person has already worse, not better.

Blog Posts

Chat Day Transcripts

Infographics

See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2019 Survey Results: Overall Findings

Published: December 18, 2019
This infographic of the NIH’s 2019 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription drugs.
See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2019 Survey Results: Vaping

Published: December 13, 2019
This infographic of the NIH’s 2019 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for vaping.
See text description below

Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2018

Published: September 13, 2019
The 2018 Monitoring the Future College Students and Young Adults survey shows trends in the use of marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, and synthetic drugs in college students and non-college peers.
See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2018 Survey Results

Published: December 17, 2018
This infographic of the NIH’s 2018 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for vaping, marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, and prescription/OTC drugs.
See text description below

Drugged Driving

Published: October 30, 2018
Driving while under the influence of legal or illegal substances puts the driver, passengers, and others who share the road in danger.
See text description below

Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2017

Published: September 05, 2018
The 2017 Monitoring the Future College Students and Young Adults survey shows trends in the use of marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, and synthetic drugs in college students and non-college peers.
See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2017 Survey Results

Published: December 12, 2017
This infographic of the NIH’s 2017 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, e-cigarettes (e-vaporizers), and prescription opioids.
See below for text description

Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2016

Published: September 07, 2017
The 2016 Monitoring the Future College Students and Young Adults survey shows trends in the use of marijuana, alcohol, nicotine, and other drugs in college students and non-college peers.
See text description below

Monitoring the Future 2016 Survey Results

Published: December 13, 2016
This infographic of the NIH’s 2016 Monitoring the Future survey highlights drug use trends among the Nation’s youth for marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and prescription opioids.
See below for text description

Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2015

Published: November 03, 2016
The 2015 Monitoring the Future College Students and Adults survey shows trends in the use of alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, cocaine, and other drugs in college students and non-college peers.
See below for text description

Drug and Alcohol Use in College-Age Adults in 2014

Published: December 21, 2015
The 2014 Monitoring the Future College Students and Adults survey shows trends in alcohol, marijuana, nicotine, and stimulant use in college students and non-college peers.
Infographic - see text below for description

Drug and Alcohol Use - A Significant Risk Factor for HIV

Published: April 21, 2015
From 2005 to 2009, 1 in 3 persons with HIV was a current drug user or binged on alcohol
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