What it is:

Alcohol is a legal controlled substance. It’s created by a fermentation process involving yeast, sugar and starches. The ingredient ethyl alcohol, which is created during the fermentation process, is what causes alcohol’s intoxicating effects.1

Variations include beer, wine, and hard liquors like vodka and whiskey.

What it does:

Alcohol, like other depressants, slows down the central nervous system.2 This can lead to feelings of relaxation, confidence, and lowered inhibitions. It can also cause physical reactions like loss of coordination, memory, and the ability to make good decisions.3

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), excessive drinking is harmful. The CDC defines excessive drinking as either binge drinking (4–5+ drinks during a single occasion) or heavy drinking (8–15+ drinks per week), and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.  

Alcohol is a carcinogen, increasing the risk of a variety of cancers, including the colon, liver, esophagus, throat, and mouth. Many medical professionals insist that any alcohol consumption can be harmful.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that for women specifically, having more than seven alcoholic drinks in a week puts them at higher risk for heart disease, stroke and liver disease. The recommended maximum level for men is twice that amount.

Women who have even one drink a day have a 10 percent higher risk of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink, and the risk rises another 10 percent for every extra drink they have a day, according to 2009 research from the University of Oxford.

This map from the Pew Charitable Trusts shows the prevalence of alcohol misuse

Inforgraphic: Binge Drinking Map

Find trustworthy treatment for alcohol use disorders

This government tool explains all your options and helps you find doctors, therapists, and programs.

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Signs someone could be misusing:

Research has shown that continued use of substances, including alcohol, can make a person more at-risk for developing addiction.5 So for children and teenagers, drinking can be particularly dangerous.6

When an adult is misusing alcohol, they might feel they need to drink, rather than want to drink. They may find themselves drinking far more than their peers in social situations, or drinking heavily alone. Many people in recovery say that they used to frequently black out from alcohol use, finding themselves unable to remember what they said or did during the time that they were drunk. The situations can be wide-ranging, but the bottom line is this: Once alcohol is interfering with someone's daily life, it's misuse.7


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Excessive alcohol use has immediate effects that increase the risk of many harmful health conditions. These are most often the result of binge drinking. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems.

Short-Term Health Risks
• Motor vehicle crashes
• Falls
• Drownings
• Burns
• Homicide
• Suicide
• Sexual assault
• Intimate partner violence
Alcohol poisoning
Reproductive health
• Risky sexual behaviors
• Unintended pregnancy
• Sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV
• Miscarriage
• Stillbirth
• Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs)

Long-Term Health Risks
Chronic diseases
• High blood pressure
• Heart disease
• Stroke
• Liver disease
• Digestive problems
• Breast
• Mouth and throat
• Liver
• Colon
Learning and memory problems
• Dementia
• Poor school performance
Mental health
• Depression
• Anxiety
Social problems
• Lost productivity
• Family problems
• Unemployment
Alcohol dependence

1. CDC. Alcohol, Frequently Asked Questions. October 2016.
2. Mukherjee S. “Alcoholism and its effect on the central nervous system.” Current Neurovascular Research, August 2013.
3. NIDA for Teens. Alcohol.
4. CDC. Fact Sheets – Alcohol Use and Your Health. October 2016.
5. “Drugs, Brains and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, July 2014.
6. Tapert SF, Caldwell L, Burke C. “Alcohol and the Adolescent Brain.” NIH.
7. CDC. Alcohol, Frequently Asked Questions. October 2016.