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What’s the score?

Alcohol is also known as booze or drink, in America it's called liquor and in Australia grog.

Booze is the oldest and most widely used drug in the UK. It’s a mood changing drug and a depressant but in small doses it acts as a stimulant.

Taking alcohol

Alcohol is made when sugar and other carbohydrates ferment, usually with the help of yeast. Booze can be made from grains, for example, barley makes whiskey, hops makes beer, and rye makes vodka. It can also be made from fruit or vegetables: grapes make wine, apples make cider, and potatoes make vodka. The effects of alcohol are stronger on an empty stomach and mixing different types of drink makes you more drunk and can result in a worse hangover.

Highs and lows

Alcohol heightens your mood, making you happier or more affectionate if you feel that way already. It can relax you, lower your inhibitions, and make you more sociable and confident. If your mood is low, alcohol can make it lower, and it’s well known for causing aggression. When booze lowers your inhibitions, it can put you at risk of harm and affect your judgement.

Because it’s a depressant, alcohol slows down your body’s reactions, causing slurred speech, lack of co-ordination, blurred vision, sleepiness or passing out. Other unwelcome effects are throwing up and dehydration -- not having enough water in the body is the main cause of hangovers. Higher doses cause blackouts where you can't remember what happened, and very high doses can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can kill.

Sex and alcohol

Alcohol can lower your inhibitions and could make you feel affectionate, horny, sexually confident, sexually assertive, or experimental. The numbing effect of booze can make it harder to come and drinking can stop you getting a hard-on. Heavy drinkers can lose both their sex drive and their ability to get erections.

Drink affects people’s judgement which can make them more likely to take risks during sex that could lead to them getting or passing on HIV. Booze can stop you being in control of what you do sexually or mean you can’t remember afterwards what sex you had.

Find out more about drugs and sex here.

A long term relationship?

Alcohol is a low level toxin which is the reason it can damage the heart and liver of heavy drinkers and why pregnant women shouldn’t drink.

Heavy drinking over a long period can lead to liver disease, cancers of the throat, mouth and liver, and brain damage. Excessive drinking kills thousands each year.

Addiction to alcohol can be physical, for example, the ‘shakes’ are a withdrawal symptom, or psychological, giving you an intense urge to keep drinking.

Alcohol with other drugs

Depressants  – because alcohol is a depressant drug, mixing it with other depressants like GHB, ketamine or tranquillisers can make you pass out or interfere with your breathing or heart which can kill. GHB-related overdoses and deaths often involve alcohol. It’s risky to take GHB if you have booze in your system.

Ecstasy  – booze deadens the effects of E and together both can dangerously dehydrate the body. E-related deaths often involve alcohol.

Cocaine – in the body alcohol combines with cocaine to make cocaethylene, which can make the effects of the coke stronger. Mixing the two increases the harm done by both drugs. There’s a bigger risk of sudden death when people use cocaine and alcohol together.

HIV drugs – there are no significant bad reactions with moderate alcohol use, but if booze makes you throw up within an hour of taking HIV medication, the dose should be taken again. As drinking often causes vomiting, mixing it with other drugs carries the risk of choking on vomit if you fall unconscious.

Useful to know

Drinking water between drinks and/or before sleeping cuts down on dehydration and hangover symptoms.

Alcohol can make anxiety, depression or sleep problems worse, so should be treated with caution if you’re vulnerable to these.

Coffee can’t sober you up. Only alcohol leaving your system over time does this.

The law

To buy alcohol you must be 18 or over. If you're aged 16-17 you can have alcohol bought for you when ordering a meal and with an adult. It’s against the law to sell alcohol to someone who’s drunk. The UK legal limit for drinking and driving is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.

The penalty for driving over the limit can be a one year driving ban, a fine of up to £5,000, or a prison sentence of up to six months. Causing death by dangerous driving can lead to 14 years in prison and a two year driving ban. A drink driving endorsement will stay on your drivers licence for 11 years. 

Two pints of normal strength lager or one large glass of wine are enough to put someone over the limit.

  • One pint of strong lager or cider = three units
  • One alcopop = one and a half units
  • One small glass of wine = two units
  • One can of strong lager = over two units
  • One double measure of spirits = two units

Problem drinking

Most people with drink problems aren’t actually alcoholics. Many will only drink a few days a week but then drink to excess.

Is your drinking or the drinking of someone close to you a problem? These can be the signs:

  • trying to cut down on drinking
  • getting annoyed if people comment on how much they drink
  • feeling guilty about drinking
  • needing a drink first thing in the morning.

If someone gets ‘the shakes’ this means they’re ‘alcohol dependent’ and suddenly coming off alcohol could be dangerous. In this situation consult a doctor.

The World Health Organisation has devised a test that can help someone decide if their drinking is a problem. Versions of this test can be completed online on the NHS website here.

More info and tips for cutting down and getting help

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
Groups are held all over the country. Click here to find your nearest one.

Free, confidential helpline offering help and support around your drinking or someone else’s.

Phone: 0800 917 8282 (9am-11pm weekdays)

This article was last reviewed on: 28/10/11
Date due for next review: 28/10/14

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