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Red wine being poured from a bottle to a glass to illustrate the concept of alcohol

Red wine being poured from a bottle to a glass to illustrate the concept of alcohol
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Alcohol - an overview

7-minute read

What is alcohol?

Alcohol usually refers to drinks such as beer, wine or spirits. These contain a chemical known as 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 stomach and small intestine. It then quickly travels to all parts of the body — including the brain.

Alcohol generally only takes a few minutes to reach the brain. But how quickly you absorb alcohol can change, depending on a number of factors. These include your:

  • genetics
  • age
  • sex
  • nutrition
  • individual metabolism (how your body processes alcohol)
  • body size and composition
  • experience with alcohol

The liver is the main body organ that removes alcohol from your bloodstream. Alcohol is processed at a fixed rate. It generally takes about one hour to break down the alcohol content of one standard drink.

Vomiting, having a cold shower or drinking coffee or other caffeine drinks do not help remove alcohol from your blood.

What is a standard drink?

Working out exactly what is a standard drink is not always easy. One standard drink contains 10 grams of pure alcohol (the same as 12.5ml of pure alcohol).

This amount of alcohol is found in (approximately):

  • 285ml full-strength beer or cider
  • 375ml mid-strength beer
  • 425ml light-strength beer
  • 100ml wine
  • 30ml shot of spirits

So, you must measure standard drinks by the amount of alcohol they contain, and not by the number of glasses that you consume.

Check the label of any bottle, can or cask of alcohol for the number of standard drinks it contains.

You can also use these calculators to work out how much you are drinking:

Standard drink
Standard drink guide (developed by Department of Health). Click here for an extended version.

How much alcohol can different people drink safely?

No amount of alcohol can be said to be safe. There are factors that can change how alcohol affects different people, including:

  • sex
  • age
  • mental health
  • other drug use
  • existing medical conditions

Drinking more than the recommended alcohol intake can increase your risk of harm. To reduce your risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury, healthy adults should drink:

  • no more than 10 standard drinks a week
  • no more than 4 standard drinks in any one day

Can drinking alcohol increase your risk of cancer?

Even consuming a small amount of alcohol increases your risk of cancer. Alcohol particularly increases the risk of cancers of the:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • voice box
  • oesophagus (food pipe)
  • bowel
  • liver
  • breast

Drinking alcohol may also lead to weight gain, which in turn can increase the risk of other types of cancers. The Cancer Council recommends people limit their alcohol consumption to reduce cancer risk.

What are the harms of drinking alcohol when pregnant or breastfeeding?

Pregnant women and women who are planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol. Alcohol increases the risk of harm to the unborn baby. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is a condition caused by alcohol exposure during pregnancy.

If you’re breastfeeding, the safest option is to not drink alcohol, as a small amount will be present in your breastmilk.

Alcohol and children

Drinking under the age of 18 years has higher risks of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury.

A younger person’s body doesn’t cope with alcohol as well as an older person’s body. The younger person’s brain, heart and liver aren’t fully developed. This means they are less able to process alcohol. Drinking can therefore seriously affect a younger person’s health.

To reduce the risk of harm, anyone under the age of 18 years should not drink alcohol.

In some states, it is an offence to supply alcohol to a person aged under 18 in a private home. This is the case, unless the young person’s parent or guardian has given permission and the alcohol is supplied in a responsible manner.

The laws that cover alcohol and children vary between states and may sometimes change. For more information, visit the Alcohol and Drug Foundation.

Each week in Australia, alcohol consumption is responsible for numerous hospitalisations and deaths in teenagers aged 14 to 17 years.

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 how to deal with peer pressure related to alcohol or binge drinking
  • rewarding good behaviour when they show a responsible attitude towards alcohol
  • talking to your teenager about alcohol laws and the potential consequences of breaking them

What is binge drinking?

Binge drinking means ‘drinking to get drunk’ or drinking heavily on a single occasion. Peer pressure may make a person more likely to engage in binge drinking.

Australia health guidelines recommend drinking no more than 4 standard drinks on any one occasion.

Binge drinking can cause short-term problems, such as nausea and hangovers. It carries the risk of injury, both to the person drinking and to others around them. It can also have long-term effects on health and wellbeing. These effects include:

  • significant damage to the brain and liver
  • physical and psychological dependence on alcohol
  • the risk of developing emotional and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety

Drinking and driving

Driving is a complex task. Drinking and driving carries a much greater risk of having a car accident. A person who drinks and drives is less able to see moving lights, judge distances or respond to multiple stimuli. Alcohol leads to more road crashes than any other single factor in Australia.

Australian law requires fully licensed car drivers to have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 or less when driving.

A BAC is a measurement of the amount of alcohol in your body. This 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.

Australian police are able to stop any vehicle at any time to breath test the driver for their BAC.

The laws regarding BAC are different for special licence categories such as:

  • learner and probationary (P-plate) drivers
  • taxi drivers
  • bus drivers
  • train drivers
  • heavy truck drivers

These laws can be found on your state or territory’s police website.

Before going out drinking, make sure you have a plan. 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.

It is important to understand that your blood alcohol level will continue to rise after you have had your last drink. You generally won’t reach your maximum BAC until 45 to 90 minutes after having your final drink.

Click here for the best tips for drinking safely.

Resources and support

If you or someone you know needs support or treatment for their alcohol consumption habits, you can contact:

  • your doctor
  • your local community health service
  • DrinkWise
  • Alcoholics Anonymous Australia: 1300 222 222
  • Alcohol and Drug Foundation, DrugInfo: 1300 85 85 84
  • National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline: 1800 250 015. Provides free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs. It will automatically direct you to the Alcohol and Drug Information Service in your state or territory
  • headspace (for youth aged 12 to 25) on 1800 650 890 or chat online

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022


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