Substance Types and Effects: Alcohol

Though alcohol is legal and normalized in our daily lives, it’s important to remember that it’s a drug like any other. It impacts the body in specific ways, can harm your health, and people can develop an addiction to it.

How does alcohol affect the body?

Ethyl alcohol, which is created during the fermentation process, is what causes the intoxicating effects of beverages like beer, wine, and liquor.

Alcohol, like other depressants, slows down the central nervous system. 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.

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. However, excessive drinking alone does not mean that a person has an alcohol use disorder.

How can risks be reduced when drinking alcohol?

  • Never use opioids or benzodiazepines while drinking alcohol—this mixing can increase the risk of fatal overdose
  • Practice moderation, either by choosing drinks with lower levels of alcohol by volume (ABV) or by reducing the number of total drinks you consume
  • Take breaks from alcohol, like Dry January, and use them as an opportunity to evaluate alcohol’s role in your life
  • Stay out of the driver’s seat when you’ve been drinking

What are the signs of an alcohol use disorder?

When someone is misusing alcohol, they might feel like they need to drink, rather than want to drink.

A person with an alcohol use disorder may find themselves drinking far more than their peers in social situations, or drinking heavily alone. Many people who've recovered say that they used to frequently blackout 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 time to seek treatment.

How can an alcohol use disorder be treated?

There are effective treatments for alcohol use disorder—and treatment is not limited to luxury rehabs or 28-day residential programs. In fact, effective treatment for alcohol use disorder can start in a primary care doctor’s office, where needs can be assessed and referrals can be made.

It’s important to remember that alcohol withdrawal is a serious medical condition that can be fatal. Patients with severe alcohol use disorders should always talk to a doctor before attempting to quit cold turkey.

Treatments should always be individualized and based on each patient’s needs and goals. Effective treatments include behavioral therapy, support groups, and medications like naltrexone and disulfiram.

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September 2021

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