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How alcohol affects your health

Alcohol is the most widely used social drug in Australia. Its use affects different people in different ways.

Beer bubbles.
Keep an eye on what you’re drinking, set limits for yourself and stick to them.

What is alcohol?

Alcohol usually refers to drinks such as beer, wine or spirits that contain ethyl alcohol (ethanol). It is a mood-changing legal drug that belongs to the class of drugs known as 'depressants'. This doesn’t mean that alcohol makes you depressed (although it can have this effect). It means that alcohol slows down the central nervous system and inhibits many of the brain’s functions. It also affects almost all of the body’s cells and systems.

When a person drinks alcohol it is absorbed into the blood stream through the walls of the stomach and small intestine, and then rapidly distributed to all parts of the body – including the brain. Although the rate of absorption can differ depending on a number of factors, including sex, body size and composition, age, experience of drinking, genetics, nutrition and individual metabolism, it generally only takes a few minutes for alcohol to reach the brain.

There is no amount of alcohol that can be said to be safe for everyone.

The liver is the main body organ responsible for removing alcohol from the bloodstream. It processes alcohol at a fixed rate, and it generally takes about one hour to break down the alcohol content of one standard drink. You cannot remove alcohol from your blood by vomiting, having a cold shower or drinking coffee or other caffeine drinks.

What is a standard drink?

Working out exactly what a standard drink is can be tricky. In a nutshell, one standard drink contains 10g of pure alcohol (equivalent to 12.5ml of pure alcohol), regardless of glass size or alcohol type (such as beer, wine or spirits).

For example, a 250ml can of high strength pre-mix spirits (7-10% alc. vol) equals 1.4-1.9 standard drinks, while a 285ml glass of full strength beer (4.8% alc. vol) equals 1.1 standard drinks. Therefore, these two drinks represent almost three standard drink measures according to their alcohol content. This is why you must measure standard drinks by the amount of alcohol they contain, and not by the number of glasses that you consume.

In Australia, all bottles, cans and casks containing alcoholic beverages are required by law to state on the label the approximate number of standard drinks they contain.

More information on standards drinks can be found at www.alcohol.gov.au or www.nhmrc.gov.au [PDF].

How much alcohol can different people drink safely?

There is no amount of alcohol that can be said to be safe for everyone because it affects people in different ways. Factors such as gender, age, mental health, drug use and existing medical conditions can change how alcohol affects different people.

For healthy men and women, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any day reduces their risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury over a lifetime.

Pregnant women should not drink alcohol because it increases the risk of harm to the baby. This is because alcohol can cross the placental barrier and find its way into the fetal blood.

Breastfeeding women should also avoid alcohol because it can enter their breast milk.

Alcohol and children

It’s illegal for anyone to drink alcohol if they are under 18 years of age. The body also doesn’t cope as well with alcohol when people are younger because their brain, heart and liver aren’t fully developed enough to process it. This means it can seriously damage their health.

Alcohol accounts for 13% of all deaths among 14-17-year-old Australians. In fact, about one Australian teenager dies, and more than 60 are hospitalised, every week from alcohol-related causes.

Some useful tips for dealing with teenagers and drinking include:

  • Setting a good example in your own consumption of alcohol.
  • Talking to your teenager about alcohol laws and the potential consequences for breaking them.
  • Rewarding good behaviour if they show a responsible attitude towards alcohol.
  • Talking to your teenager about how to deal with peer pressure related to alcohol or binge drinking.

What is binge drinking?

Binge drinking means drinking heavily on a single occasion, or drinking continuously over a number of days or weeks. A person might be more likely to engage in this behaviour if they feel peer pressure to do so, or if they’re feeling awkward or uncomfortable at a party.

Binge drinking also has adverse short-term effects such as nausea and potential injury to the person drinking, and to others around them. It can also cause long-term effects on their health and wellbeing. These effects include significant damage to the brain and liver, physical and psychological dependence on alcohol, and the risk of developing emotional and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Drinking and driving

Driving is a complex task, and people who drink and drive have a much greater chance of having a car accident due to factors such as a decreased ability to see or locate moving lights, judge distances or respond to several stimuli. In fact, alcohol causes more road crashes than any other single factor in Australia.

The law in Australia is that fully licenced car drivers must have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 or less when they are driving. Australian police are also able to stop any vehicle at any time to breath test the driver for their BAC.

A BAC is a measurement of the amount of alcohol in your body which is expressed as grams of alcohol per 100ml of blood. This means that a 0.05 BAC is the equivalent of 0.05g of alcohol per 100ml of blood.

The laws regarding BAC are also different for special licence categories such as learner and probationary drivers, taxi, bus, train and heavy truck drivers. These laws can be found on your State’s or Territory’s police website.

Tips on how to drink responsibly

  • Keep an eye on what you’re drinking, set limits for yourself and stick to them.
  • Know what a standard drink is and find a way to keep track of what you’re drinking.
  • Start with non-alcoholic drinks and alternate with alcoholic drinks, or try drinks with a lower alcohol content.
  • Eat before or while you are drinking.
  • Don’t drink and drive.
  • If you are going out in a group, work out who will drive everyone home. If no one wants to be the nominated driver, bring enough money for a taxi.
  • Avoid mixing alcohol and other drugs/medications.
  • Understand that your blood alcohol will continue to rise after you have consumed your last drink. You generally won’t reach your maximum BAC until 45-90 minutes after consuming it.

More information

If you or someone you know needs support and treatment with their alcohol intake, you can contact:

  • your doctor
  • your local community health service
  • Drinkwise Australia at www.drinkwise.org.au
  • Alcoholics Anonymous Australia at www.aa.org.au or call 1300 22 22 22
  • an alcohol or other drug helpline in your State/Territory:
    • ACT: (02) 6207 9977
    • NSW: (02) 9361 8000 (Sydney), 1800 422 599 (NSW country)
    • NT: (08) 8922 8399 (Darwin), (08) 8951 7580 (Central Australia), 1800 131 350 (Territory wide)
    • QLD: 1800 177 833 

    • SA: 1300 131 340

    • Tas: 1800 811 994
    • Vic: 1800 888 236
    • WA: (08) 9442 5000 (Perth), 1800 198 024 (WA country)
  • eheadspace 
(for youth aged 12-25) on
1800 650 890, or go to www.eheadspace.org.au.

Sources: alcohol.gov.au, Cth (Reduce your risk: new national guidelines for alcohol consumption, Standard drinks guide, Alcohol and your kids: a guide for parents and carers, If you are breastfeeding the safest option is not to drink alcohol), Drinkwise (Drink driving, What is alcohol, How your body absorbs alcohol, Binge drinking), National Health and Medical Research Council (Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol), ReachOut.com (Tips for drinking responsibly, Signs you might have a drinking problem, All about binge drinking)

Last reviewed: 
February, 2013