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.
Regular drinking can cause long term damage to the body. People can report some of the harms that happens as a result of one-off drinking occasions (road crashes, pedestrian injury, assaults, burns, poisonings, falls, drownings, and workplace injuries). However, there’s also a lot of harm and ill-health caused by our normal day-to-day drinking over time.
Abstaining from using alcohol is the only way to completely protect oneself from its risks and negative effects. We should be aware of the potential negative physical, mental and legal consequences of excessive alcohol consumption, especially if drinking underage. Drinking alcohol has acute effects on the body. It impairs speech, coordination, vision, and judgment, and often leads to dangerous risk-taking behavior. Nearly half of all accidental deaths, suicides, and homicides are alcohol related. The misuse of alcohol is often involved in violent behavior, non-stranger rape, unintended pregnancy, and exposure to sexually transmitted infections.
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. The risk of cancer increases with any alcohol consumption and the recommendation is avoid drinking altogether. Don’t drink more than four standard drinks at a time to avoid the risk of alcohol-related injury.
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 is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen. This is the highest level of certainty, like for tobacco smoke and asbestos.1 There are many mechanisms for how alcohol causes cancer.
Alcohol consumption is associated with increasing the risk of liver disease. It can lead to these four diseases of the liver:
Fatty liver. When large amounts of alcohol are consumed there can be a build-up of fat in the liver. This fatty build-up occurs after a one-off (single) drinking session or regular drinking at harmful levels.
Alcoholic hepatitis. Alcohol hepatitis occurs from regular and ongoing alcohol consumption. It is caused by inflammatory changes within the liver, and can result in abdominal pain, fever, deep jaundice and coma. If regular alcohol consumption continues it can lead to alcohol cirrhosis.
Alcoholic cirrhosis. Alcoholic cirrhosis affects the structure and function of the liver. 1 Cirrhosis is a complication caused by years of consistent alcohol use. Alcohol is the most common cause of cirrhosis of the liver, and cirrhosis is the most common cause of illness and death from long term harmful alcohol consumption. 24 Alcoholic hepatitis can lead to alcohol cirrhosis.
Cancer. Acetaldehyde is a toxic substance produced by the liver when it breaks down alcohol. Acetaldehyde is a carcinogen and can cause cancer.
Heart rate is the number of times the heartbeats per minute. Alcohol can cause variability in the way the heart beats – the time between heart beats. Studies have found that regular heavy drinking can cause episodes of tachycardia (increased heart rate due to problems in the electrical signals that produce a heartbeat).
Atrial fibrillation. Atrial fibrillation is one type of arrhythmia, and causes the upper chambers of the heart (the atriums) to quiver rather than beat normally. 24 Alcohol causes atrial fibrillation through multiple mechanisms and can be seen both acutely (after one off drinking occasion) and from the cumulative effects of alcohol on the heart muscle. This means blood does not circulate as efficiently as it should. This can result in blood, which hasn’t left the atrium, pool and clot. If the blood that has clotted within the atrium breaks off and is within the blood stream it can lodge in an artery within the brain causing an ischemic stroke.
Alcohol consumption can increase the risk of two types of strokes occurring. Both result in a disrupted blood flow to brain tissue, and can result in a loss of motor and sensory functions. A stroke can also damage other systems in the body including the skeletal, muscular, respiratory, digestive and urinary systems.
Drinking too much too quickly on any single occasion can increase your risk of:
accidents resulting in injury, causing death in some cases
misjudging risky situations
losing self-control, like having unprotected sex.
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.