What is alcohol?
Alcohol is a colourless liquid contained in wine, beer, spirits and other alcoholic drinks. Alcohol is a depressant because it slows down the central nervous system, which relays information between the brain and the rest of the body. The legal age to buy alcohol in Australia is 18 years of age.
Types of alcohol include:
- Wine, including sparkling (fizzy) wines such as champagne, spumante
- Spirits (e.g. vodka, gin, rum, bourbon, whisky)
- Liqueurs (e.g. coffee, hazelnut or melon flavoured alcohol)
- Pre-mixed drinks, also known as ready-to-drinks (e.g. cans of bourbon and cola, bottles of vodka or rum mixed with soft drink, vodka mixed with chocolate milk)
- Fortified wines (e.g. port, sherry).
How long do the effects last?
The effect of alcohol varies greatly from person to person and depends on individual factors, including gender, age, size, mood, medical conditions, and whether it is taken together with other drugs.
Drinks also vary greatly in how much alcohol they contain. The more alcohol a drink contains, the longer it takes for the body to process. In Australia, one “standard drink” is a drink that contains 10 grams of pure alcohol. As you can see in the image below, different drinks contain different amounts of alcohol. To test your knowledge, you might like to complete our “Understanding standard drinks” worksheet.
What are the effects?
Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in Australia and is the second leading cause of drug-related death and hospital admissions after tobacco. Some harms are associated with drinking too much on one occasion (e.g. injuries, unsafe sex, alcohol poisoning) while other harms are associated with regular drinking (e.g. liver problems, addiction).
The effects of alcohol may include:
- Slower breathing and heart rate
- Feeling of relaxation
- Loss of inhibitions
- Unsteadiness, loss of coordination
- Risky behaviour (e.g., unsafe sex)
- Nausea, vomiting
- Can cause the user to become unconscious.
- Dependence (addiction)
- Increased risk of anxiety and depression
- Increased risk of diabetes and obesity
- Brain damage
- Heart problems
- Liver problems
- Alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to serious birth defects.
Young People and Alcohol
The human brain is undergoing important development and maturation well into the 20s. Research findings suggest that drinking alcohol during the teenage years can disrupt healthy brain development. For this reason, teenagers are advised to avoid drinking for as long as possible. Starting to drink at an earlier age also places young people at greater risk of developing alcohol-related problems later in life.
When alcohol is absorbed, it is distributed throughout the water held in a person's body. On average, young people have a smaller body mass than adults and so have less water. This means that in a younger person there is less water to dilute the alcohol, so the alcohol is more concentrated and will have a greater effect. Younger people may lack experience of drinking and its effects. When young people do drink, it is often out with friends in a situation where they are at high-risk of accidents or injury.
Alcohol and Driving
Alcohol is a huge contributor to accidents, deaths and injuries on the roads each year. Driving requires concentration, good coordination and reflexes, and the ability to make accurate judgements and decisions. Alcohol reduces all of these abilities. The risk of serious injury and death from drink driving is greater in regional and rural areas, so people who live in those communities should be especially careful.
Research shows that injuries and deaths from drink driving are much greater among young people than adults. This is why the legal alcohol limit is zero for learner and provisional licence holders.
This factsheet was developed following expert review by researchers at the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Mental Health and Substance Use and National Drug & Alcohol Research Centre, UNSW. See detailed attachment for a list of sources for this information.