What does it look like?
Alcohol comes in a wide range of drinks with different alcoholic strengths, colours and tastes. Alcohol often has labels with useful information, such as how many units are in the drink. All labels are required by law to display the strength of the drink (alcohol by volume, or ABV).
What we mean by alcohol here is alcoholic drinks, such as beer, wine and spirits. The scientific name for the alcohol in these drinks is ethanol or ethyl alcohol.
Spirits usually contain a much higher concentration of alcohol than wine or lager and are normally drunk in smaller measures.
Ready-to-drink ‘mixers’ and ‘alcopops’ may not seem to be strong drinks but they may contain more alcohol than typical bottles or cans of beer or cider.
There is no completely safe level of drinking, but by sticking within these guidelines, you can lower your risk of harming your health.
To keep the risk of harm from alcohol low, men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week.
Don’t ‘save up’ your units to use in one or two days. If you do drink as much as 14 units in a week you should spread this out over three or more days.
If you want to cut down how much you’re drinking, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.
If you are out for a drink, have something alcohol-free, every other drink.
Units of alcohol
A unit is a way of expressing the actual amount of pure alcohol that is in a drink. This allows you to compare how strong one type of alcoholic drink is to another type.
For example: 75cl Bottle of wine = approximately 10 units, 500 cl can of 4% lager = 2 units, 1 litre bottle of 40% spirits = 40 units
Check the label on drinks as they often show the total number of alcohol units in the can or bottle. If they don’t, you can calculate the units by multiplying its ABV (ABV is ‘alcohol by volume’ that shows you the strength of an alcoholic drink), by the volume of the drink (in mls) and then dividing by 1,000.
How does it make you feel?
Just enough can make you feel sociable; too much and you’ll have a hangover the next day, and may not even remember what you got up to; and way too much alcohol in a single session could put you in a coma or even kill you.
Although it's legal for people aged 18 and over to buy and drink alcohol, that doesn't mean it's safe.
Some effects include: Reduced feelings of anxiety and inhibitions, which can help you feel more sociable. An exaggeration of whatever mood you're in when you start drinking.
Drinking a lot of alcohol (more than 6-8 units) will make you intoxicated (drunk), which will show itself as increasingly: slurred speech; lack of co-ordination and blurred vision.
Alcohol raises testosterone levels in males and females, which affects both sexual drive and aggression.
The more you drink in a sitting, the more your judgement will be affected, and this can lead to doing things or taking risks that you otherwise wouldn’t.
How long the effects last and the drug stays in your system depends on how much you’ve taken, your size, whether you’ve eaten and what other drugs you may have also taken.
How quickly you feel the effects and how long they last, depend on how much you’ve taken and how quickly, your size, whether you’ve eaten and any other drugs you may have also taken.
Alcohol is broken down by the liver into other compounds at the rate of about 1 unit per hour. Only the liver breaks down alcohol in the body and nothing else, such as drinking coffee or caffeine drinks, will speed that process up, though you may feel more alert.
The short-term effects of alcohol can last for a day or two, depending on how much you drank, including any hangover.
Alcohol and the compounds that alcohol is broken down into by your liver are poisonous and although they are eventually excreted from the system, they have a potentially damaging effect on almost every system of the body, which can result in health damage over time.
Physical health risks
Physical health risks
Drinking alcohol causes a wide range of physical and mental health problems, either because of binge drinking or from regularly drinking more than 14 units per week.
Binge drinking can lead to injuries from falls, accidents or assaults. Drinking above the low risk guidelines on a regular basis can cause illnesses such as depression, high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, cancers of the throat, mouth breast and liver.
Alcohol contributes to all kinds of problems in Britain, from violent crime to domestic violence to car-related deaths to missing work and unemployment.
There are short-term risks like injuries and accidents which can happen because of being drunk. These can include head injuries, scars, and can sometimes be fatal. There are other short-term risks such as alcohol poisoning.
Long-term risks come from regularly drinking alcohol over the low risk guideline over a long time. Then the risks of getting different diseases increase and can lead to illnesses, such as cancer, stroke, heart disease, liver disease, and damage to your brain and nervous system.
Long-term effects include damage to the brain, body and its organs. This can take years to develop and can lead to a wide range of serious health problems, like cancers, that you may not realise are due to alcohol.
Other chemical forms of alcohol, such as methanol (meths), Isopropanol and butanol, are much more toxic than ethanol and should not be consumed by humans.
The scientific name for the alcohol in drinks is ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Other types of alcohol, such as methanol and butanol, are much more toxic than ethanol and should not be consumed by humans, as they can cause severe liver damage, blindness and even death.
Although counterfeit alcoholic drinks may contain these toxic forms of alcohol or other poisonous impurities, the vast majority of alcohol brought from legitimate sources will not.
Counterfeit alcoholic drinks tend to be sold in places you wouldn’t normally buy alcohol, such as car boot sales, and sold at low prices. Sometimes, a clue to knowing that an alcoholic drink is counterfeit is its labelling and packing – there may be spelling mistakes, holographic labels aren’t holographic, etc.
‘Alcopops’ and ready-to-drink ‘mixers’ may not seem to be strong drinks but they may contain more alcohol than typical bottles or cans of beer or cider.
Is it dangerous to mix with other drugs?
Alcoholic drinks are often mixed with non-alcoholic drinks (mixers), such as fruit juice, tonic water or lemonade, to give different flavours. This means there is more liquid in the drink but doesn’t reduce the amount of alcohol in the whole drink. So whether you drink a unit of vodka on its own or with 25cl of lemonade, you are still drinking a unit of vodka.
Mixing alcohol with mixers does increase the overall volume of the drink, which means it takes longer to drink, so that you might not have as many drinks in a session. Adding the mixer to the alcoholic drink, rather than adding the alcohol to the mixer, makes it easier to gauge the amount of alcohol in your glass. Drinking spirits or wine straight from the bottle makes it much more difficult to gauge how many units you are drinking.
Mixing different types of alcoholic drinks together e.g. cider and lager as a “Snakebite” doesn’t multiply the effect of the alcohol.
Any time you mix alcohol and other drugs together you take on new risks. Things that affect your risk include how much you have been drinking, the type of drug, the strength and how much you take.
It is particularly dangerous to mix alcohol with depressants such as benzodiazepine - Xanax and Valium are linked with deaths from overdose.
Alcohol and cocaine together can be particularly dangerous. Once they mix together in the body they produce a toxic chemical called cocaethylene, which can cause heart problems, stroke and liver damage.
Cocaethylene stays in the body much longer than cocaine or alcohol alone, and this increases the damage done to the heart and liver.
Can you get addicted?
Can you get addicted? Some people’s drinking gradually gets out of control and if they regularly drink a lot, alcohol can become overly important in their lives. Losing control of drinking is known as alcohol dependence, which leads to particularly high risk of harming their health.
Dependence on alcohol can creep up on you. Your tolerance to alcohol gradually increases the more you drink and the more often you drink, so you may find that over time you need more alcohol to get the same effect, you may seem to be getting better at holding your drink when that’s really a sign of a developing problem. This problem may get more severe as you drink more and more regularly.
People who are more dependent on alcohol, may have withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking suddenly and these can be severe. In some cases the withdrawal symptoms can be fatal, so a person may require medical treatment because of this risk of death. Typically, the symptoms include sweating, shaking, nausea and retching and high levels of anxiety. Some people can develop hallucinations or fits, or occasionally life-threatening delirious states. In these cases, it can be very dangerous to stop drinking suddenly without medical supervision.
Anyone who experiences these severe symptoms when they stop drinking should seek medical attention immediately. It is safer for them to drink some alcohol to control the withdrawal than to suffer the symptoms without medical support.
Drinking heavily over several years can result in alcohol-related liver disease. Because the liver has no nerves, people are often unaware that they are developing liver disease until it’s quite advanced. A first outward sign might be jaundice, when the skin or whites of the eyes turn yellow. If someone develops jaundice, it’s important that they get urgent medical care.
Additional law details
It’s against the law for anyone under 18 to buy alcohol in a pub, off-licence or supermarket or online.
Anyone over 18 can buy and drink alcohol legally in licensed premises in Britain. But, a lot of shops operate a scheme called Challenge 21 where if you look under 21 (or 25 in some places) and don’t have proof of your age they will refuse to sell you alcohol.
Children aged under 16 must be accompanied by an adult in a pub or bar.
The police have the power to stop a person and confiscate alcohol in a public place if they reasonably suspect the person to be aged under 18. Young people under 18 who persistently drink or are found possessing alcohol in public places may be prosecuted.
It’s illegal to give an alcoholic drink to a child under 5 except in certain circumstances (such as under medical supervision).
It’s illegal for an adult to buy alcohol for someone aged under 18, except where that person buys beer, wine or cider for someone aged 16 or 17 to be drunk with a table meal while accompanied by a person over 18.
It’s illegal to drive with more than 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood in your system. People absorb alcohol at different rates and it’s difficult to judge how many drinks would put you over this legal limit, so because any amount of alcohol slows down reaction times, it’s safest not to drink at all before driving
The UK Chief Medical Officers advise that an alcohol-free childhood is the healthiest and best option. However, if young people drink alcohol:
- It should not be until at least the age of 15 years.
- If young people aged 15 to 17 years consume alcohol, it should always be with the guidance of a parent or carer or in a supervised environment.
- Parents and young people should be aware that drinking, even at 15 or older, can be hazardous to health and that not drinking is the healthiest option for young people.
- If 15- to 17-year-olds do consume alcohol, they should do so infrequently and certainly on no more than one day a week.
- Young people aged 15 to 17 years should never exceed recommended adult daily limits and, on days when they drink, consumption should usually be below these levels.
- Adults are safest not to drink regularly more than 14 units per week, to keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level. And if they do drink as much as 14 units per week, it is best to spread this evenly over 3 days or more. If they want to cut down the amount they’re drinking, a good way to help achieve this is to have several drink-free days each week.