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Effects of alcohol and drugs

What is alcohol?

  • Alcohol is produced by fermentation — the action of yeast on liquids containing sugars and starches. Pure alcohol has no colour nor taste. Alcoholic drinks vary in colour and taste because of other ingredients that are added to them.
  • Alcohol is a depressant drug — not a stimulant as many people think. Alcohol slows down activity in the central nervous system, including the brain.
  • Depressants affect concentration and coordination, and slow the response time to unexpected situations.
  • In small quantities, depressants such as alcohol cause people to become relaxed and lower their inhibitions. They feel more confident and often act in a more extroverted manner.
  • In larger quantities, depressants can cause unconsciousness and death.

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Alcohol and the body

  • Alcohol is absorbed directly into the bloodstream through the stomach and the small intestine. Food in the stomach slows down the rate at which alcohol is absorbed, but does not prevent intoxication or drunkenness.
  • All alcohol consumed will reach the bloodstream, no matter how much food is in the stomach. Alcohol is distributed throughout the water in the body, but not into fatty tissue.

How alcohol leaves the body

  • Sobering up takes time. The liver breaks down about 91 per cent of alcohol, and a small amount leaves the body in urine, sweat and breath.
  • The liver can only work at a fixed rate, getting rid of about one standard drink an hour. Cold showers, exercise, black coffee, fresh air or vomiting will not speed up the process.
  • Someone who drinks a lot at night may still have a high level of alcohol in their bloodstream the following day.

Possible health benefits of alcohol

  • Research shows that moderate amounts of alcohol can reduce the risk of developing some types of cardiovascular disease.
  • Death rates from coronary heart disease have been shown to be lower among middle-aged males who consume small to moderate amounts of alcohol than among non-drinkers.

Effects of alcohol

  • The effects of any drug (including alcohol) vary from person to person. It depends on many factors, such as how much is drunk, how quickly the alcohol is consumed and whether the alcohol is consumed with other drugs.
  • It also depends on whether the person is used to drinking, their mood and many other factors such as age, weight, sex and general health status. For example, since most young people tend to drink alcohol less regularly than adults, they tend to experience many of the immediate effects more strongly.

Immediate effects

  1. Alcohol abuseAfter a few drinks ... Feel more relaxed, reduced concentration and slower reflexes
  2. A few more drinks ... Fewer inhibitions, more confidence, reduced coordination, slurred speech, intense moods — e.g. sad, happy, angry
  3. Still more drinks ... Confusion, blurred vision, poor muscle control
  4. More still ... Nausea, vomiting, sleep
  5. Even more … Possibly coma or death

‘Binge’ drinking

  • Binge drinking can be described as drinking heavily over a short period of time or drinking continuously over a number of days or weeks.
  • Binge drinking is harmful because it results in immediate and severe intoxication. As well as health risks, this can lead people to take risks and put themselves in dangerous situations.
  • Common effects of binge-drinking episodes are hangovers, headaches, nausea, shakiness and vomiting.

Long-term effects

  • Heavy consumption of alcohol over a long period of time can cause damage to many parts of the body.
  • Impairment of brain and liver functions can be permanent.
  • If the person’s diet is also poor, this can further affect their health.
  • Emotional difficulties, such as depression and relationship problems, are also likely.

Tolerance and dependence

  • People who drink heavily usually develop a tolerance to alcohol. This means that they need to drink more to experience the same effect. As a result, some people can drink large amounts of alcohol without appearing to be intoxicated. However, the amount of alcohol consumed can still damage their health.
  • People who regularly drink heavily may become dependent on alcohol. There are degrees of dependence, from mild dependency to compulsive drinking (often referred to as ‘alcoholism’). Dependence can be psychological or physical, or both.
  • People who are psychologically dependent on alcohol find that drinking becomes far more important than other activities in their life.
  • People who are physically dependent upon alcohol find that their body is used to functioning with alcohol present.


  • Alcohol withdrawalIf a person who is physically dependent on alcohol suddenly stops drinking they will experience withdrawal symptoms because their body has to readjust to functioning without alcohol.
  • Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include loss of appetite, nausea, anxiety, insomnia, irritability, confusion, tremors and sweating. In severe cases, alcohol withdrawal may cause convulsions, cramps, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations and even death.
  • A person considering withdrawing from alcohol should first consult a doctor.

Source: The Australian Drug Foundation.