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Health Education

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs

What is alcohol?

Ethyl alcohol (or ethanol) is a central nervous system depressant found in beer, wine, and other liquors. It is produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugars, and starches.

The effects of alcohol on the body are directly related to the amount of alcohol consumed and vary based on a person's weight, food consumption, metabolism, and how quickly the alcohol is consumed. At low doses, alcohol can have relaxing effects but slows reaction time and can impair judgment. At higher doses, alcohol can poison the body, causing a coma state and can lead to death.

Drinking alcohol while taking illicit drugs can be particularly dangerous. Taking depressants (such as GHB or ketamine) while drinking alcohol can multiply the depressant effects of both substances and lead to memory loss, coma, or death. Taking stimulants (such as methamphetamine, acid, or ecstasy) while drinking alcohol can lead a person to misjudge how intoxicated he or she really is and encourage the person to drink more alcohol. Caffeine can have the same effect on alcohol consumption as illegal stimulants, and the dehydrating effects of caffeine can also lead to consumption of additional alcohol.

Drinking alcohol while taking some prescription and over-the-counter drugs can also be dangerous. Combining alcohol with some medications can decrease the effectiveness of the medication, can multiply the effects of the alcohol and the drug, or can impair the liver's functioning. Read all packaging and instructions that comes with your medication and consult a pharmacist if any doubt remains to determine if drinking while taking your medication is dangerous.

What are the short-term risks of using alcohol?

Very little alcohol is needed to begin to impair a person's judgment. When a person's judgment is impaired, a person is more likely to do things that are embarrassing, out of character, dangerous, or even life-threatening, The following statistics from Facts on Tap demonstrate the very real consequences of alcohol use:

  1. 70% of college students admit to having engaged in sexual activity or to having sex they wouldn't have normally had primarily as a result of being under the influence of alcohol.
  2. 90% of all campus rapes occur when alcohol has been used by either the victim or the assailant.
  3. At least 1 out of 5 college students fail to practice safe sex when they're drunk even if they normally protect themselves when sober.
  4. 55% of female students and 75% of male students involved in acquaintance rape admit to having been drinking or using drugs when the incident occurred.
  5. Almost 1/3 or college students admit to having missed at least one class because of alcohol or drug use, and nearly 1/4 of students report failing a test or project because of the aftereffects of drinking or doing drugs.
  6. One night of heavy drinking can impair your ability to think abstractly for up to 30 days.
  7. In 2000, alcohol was a factor in crashes resulting in 16,792 fatalities and 513,000 nonfatal injuries (from
How do I know if I or someone I know has a problem with alcohol?

Each person is different, but you can use the CAGE test* to help you determine if you have a problem with alcohol:

Have you ever felt the need to Cut down on drinking?
Have you ever felt Annoyed by criticism of drinking?
Have you ever had Guilty feelings about drinking?
Have you ever taken a morning Eye opener?

If you answered "yes" to any of these CAGE questions, it is possible that you have a problem with drinking. See below for information on where to get help.

*Mayfield, D., McLead, G., & Hall, P. (1974). The CAGE questionnaire. American Journal of Psychiatry, 131, 1121.

Boston University has developed an online tool for assessing your alcohol use and to help you determine if you might have a problem with alcohol. Visit to use the How Much is Too Much? screening tool.

Other warning signs that you or someone you know might have a problem with alcohol include:

  1. Getting in trouble with family, roommates, significant others, friends, authority figures, or the law as a result of drinking.
  2. Drinking to escape worries or troubles.
  3. Becoming unreasonably angry or aggressive when drinking.
  4. Have to drink more and more to get the effect from drinking that you desire.
  5. Not remembering parts of what happened when you were drinking or wanting to forget parts of what happened.
  6. Trying to cut down but not being able to.
  7. Missing class or work due to drinking.
  8. Frequently drinking until you’re drunk, or drinking to get drunk.
  9. Having unsafe sex that you would not have if you were not drinking.
  10. Driving after or while drinking.
  11. Hiding your alcohol use or drinking when you're alone.
  12. Feeling ashamed or guilty about drinking.
  13. Drinking first thing in the morning to reduce anxiety or to alleviate withdrawal symptoms (hangover).
Where can I get help?

Join Together, a project of the Boston University School of Public Health, maintains a searchable database on treatment facilities so that you can find one convenient to you. Visit and click on "Find Help."

Several other sources for getting help are listed on the College Prevention site.

CAPS has an on-line program to assess yourself: look at e-chug; IUPUI Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) also can provide help.

Want to do it on your own? Read How to Cut Down on Your Drinking from the College Prevention site.

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) is so high that the central nervous system is slowed down drastically. Breathing and heart rate continue to decline as the BAC rises, which can lead to coma and death. The amount of alcohol it takes to induce alcohol poisoning is different for each person and is dependent on factors of gender, weight, how quickly alcohol is consumed, and food intake.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:

  1. Unconsciousness or inability to wake the individual
  2. Confusion
  3. Vomiting
  4. Seizures
  5. Slow breathing (Fewer than 8 breaths per minute is often given as a guideline, but each person is different! One person could be in danger at 9 breaths per minute while another individual could be fine at 7. When in doubt, call 911!)
  6. Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths is given as a guideline, but the same rule applies as above).
  7. Hypothermia (low body temperature), cold and clammy skin, or pale or bluish skin

What can you do?

  1. Know the symptoms of alcohol poisoning.
  2. Don't wait for all of the symptoms to be present.
  3. If the person is semi-conscious or unconscious, roll them onto their side. This will help prevent choking on vomit.
  4. Do not leave the person alone unless you must leave them to call 911.
  5. Do not assume the person is just "sleeping it off." If you can not wake someone who has been drinking, call 911 immediately.
  6. If you suspect at all that a person has alcohol poisoning, call 911 immediately.

What can happen if you don't get help when a friend displays symptoms of alcohol poisoning:

  1. The victim could choke on his or her own vomit.
  2. Breathing slows, becomes irregular, or stops.
  3. Heart beats irregularly or stops.
  4. Hypothermia (low body temperature).
  5. Hypoglycemia (too little blood sugar) leads to seizures and brain damage.
  6. Untreated severe dehydration from vomiting can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, or death.

For an account of what can happen with alcohol poisoning, read about Bradley.

What is blood alcohol content?

Blood alcohol content (BAC) is sometimes also referred to as "blood alcohol concentration" or "blood alcohol level." BAC is a measure of the ratio of alcohol in the blood. It is dependent on how much alcohol a person consumes in a given time frame, gender, body weight, food consumed, family history, and other factors.

BAC is affected by not only how much alcohol you drink, but also the type of alcohol you drink. Different types of drinks contain different amounts of alcohol. In general, "one drink" means:

One 12 ounce beer (at 4% alcohol);
One 5 ounce glass of wine (at 11% alcohol); or
One 1.5 ounce shot of liquor (40% alcohol or 80 proof)

Keep in mind: mixed drinks are not always measured and sometimes contain multiple servings of alcohol. A Long Island Iced Tea, for example, could contain 5 drinks in one!

There are numerous web sites available that will help you to determine what your BAC will be in a given situation:

AlcoMeters provides a chart to help you determine your BAC. Print the chart out and carry it with you to make sure you are aware of how much you are drinking when you are out.

Blood Alcohol Educator is a fun, interactive way to calculate your BAC in a virtual bar. It calculates your BAC based on gender, weight, how many drinks you consume, the type of drink you consume, and the time you spent drinking.

Check out alcohol's effects on the brain, too.

What does BAC mean?

BAC levels can mean different things for different people. The following information from Brad21 describes some generalizations of what you might feel at different BAC levels, but keep in mind that any effects listed could happen at lower BAC levels for some and at higher BAC levels for others:

.02-.03: Mild relaxation, some lightheadedness, inhibitions slightly lowered, mood intensifies.
.05-.06: Feel warm and relaxed, lose feelings of shyness, behavior may become exaggerated, emotions intensified, mild sense of euphoria.
.08-.09: Believe you’re functioning better than you actually are, slurred speech, sense of balance and motor skills become impaired, ability to see and hear clearly diminished, judgment affected. Your ability to evaluate sexual situations is impaired.
.10-.12: Feelings of euphoria, but lack of coordination and balance. Motor skills, judgment, and memory markedly impaired. Emotions exaggerated. People often become loud, aggressive, or belligerent. Men may have difficulty achieving erection at this stage.
.14-.17: Euphoria changes to feelings of unpleasantness, difficulty talking, walking, or standing. Judgment and perception are severely impaired. Aggression and increased likelihood of accidentally hurting yourself or others. May experience a blackout.
.20: Feelings of confusion or disorientation. Unable to walk or stand up on own and probably wouldn’t realize it if you hurt yourself. Nausea and vomiting may occur (though vomiting can occur at lower stages for some people). Blackouts likely.
.25: All mental, physical, and sensory functions are severely impaired. No emotions. Increased risk of choking on vomit and of seriously injuring yourself.
.30: A stupor. Little comprehension of where you are. Might pass out and be difficult to waken (which could occur at lower BACs). Alcohol poisoning can result in death.
.35: Can stop breathing at this point. Alcohol poisoning can result in death.
.40: Coma. Alcohol poisoning can result in death.

What is the legal limit for blood alcohol content in Indiana?

In Indiana, the legal limit for intoxication is .08. Keep in mind that there is no legal limit of intoxication if you are under 21 years of age because alcohol consumption is illegal for those under 21. Even if your BAC is not above .08, if your driving is impaired, an officer could still choose to arrest you. Impairment can begin with a BAC as low as .02. For more information on drunk driving enforcement in Indiana, visit the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute.

How can I drink responsibly?
  1. Always have a designated driver if you will be drinking. Never get behind the wheel after drinking.
  2. The "buddy system" applies to drinking. Make sure there is always someone there who will watch out for you and vice versa.
  3. Eat a substantial meal before drinking. Real food will cause the alcohol to metabolize more slowly and therefore, enter your bloodstream more slowly. Continue to snack throughout the night, but avoid salty foods which will lead you to feel thirsty and drink more.
  4. Alternate non-alcoholic drinks with alcoholic drinks. This will also help to keep you hydrated, especially if you choose water over caffeinated beverages.
  5. Drink slowly—do not guzzle. Drinking faster than your body can feel the effects can lead you to become more intoxicated than you expect. A rule of thumb—drink no more than 1 drink per hour.
  6. Never leave your drink unattended. If your drink is ever out of sight, don't drink it anymore and get a new one!
  7. Don't drink from a punch bowl—you never know what might have been added.
  8. Do not accept a drink from anyone else—get your drinks yourself and watch the bartender make them.
  9. Do not drink alcohol while taking illegal drugs. Check with your pharmacist before drinking alcohol if you are on ANY kind of medication (prescription or over-the-counter).
  10. Alcohol is expensive and contains lots of calories. Keep this information in mind to avoid going overboard. An alcohol cost calculator and an alcohol calorie calculator can be found at College Drinking Prevention.
What is a hangover?

A hangover is your body's reaction to being poisoned by alcohol and to withdrawal effects as the alcohol leaves the body. Symptoms of a hangover usually occur within 8 to 12 hours after the last drink and may include fatigue, depression, headache, thirst, nausea, and vomiting. The symptoms of a hangover differ for each individual.

Drinking in moderation is the key to avoiding a hangover. Alternate an alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic drink, eat a substantial meal before drinking and snack throughout the night. Participation in drinking games or drinking shots increases your alcohol consumption in most situations.

Many myths exist about what will help a hangover. The truth is that the only way to help a hangover is to give the body time to allow the alcohol to metabolize. Metabolization of the alcohol might be aided by remaining hydrated with caffeine-free non-alcoholic drinks and eating before you go to sleep and when you wake up.

Do not take a pain reliever before you go to sleep. Like alcohol, pain relievers are metabolized by the liver, and combining the two can cause liver damage.

How do moderate drinking, heavy drinking, and binge drinking differ?

Based on current dietary guidelines, moderate drinking is defined as an average of one drink or less per day for women and an average of two drinks or less per day for men. Heavy drinking occurs when a person, on average, exceeds the moderate drinking standards (on average, more than one drink for women or two drinks for men per day).

Binge drinking is defined as having 5 or more drinks in one sitting or within a short amount of time. Binge drinking for women is often defined as having 4 or more drinks in one sitting.

What is alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by a dependence on alcohol. Common signs include: a craving for alcohol, loss of control over drinking, physical dependence in which an individual has withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, and tolerance to alcohol or the need to drink more to experience the same effects. Genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors all contribute to the development of alcoholism. There is no cure for alcoholism; but counseling and medical treatment can help a person to stop drinking. Relapse is always a possibility, and recovering alcoholics are advised to avoid all alcoholic beverages to help to prevent a relapse.

What is alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse occurs when a person drinks too much but is not physically dependent on alcohol. A number of problems are related to alcohol abuse including inability to meet school, work, or family responsibilities, drunk-driving arrests or accidents while driving, and alcohol-related medical conditions.

Are there long-term consequences to alcohol use?

Yes, excess alcohol consumption can lead to serious health problems. These problems include:

  1. Damage to the liver, pancreas, central nervous system, heart, and blood vessels.
  2. Liver damage, including cirrhosis of the liver and cancer of the liver.
  3. Gastrointestinal, oral, pharynx, larynx, esophageal, liver, and breast cancers.
  4. Chronic pancreatitis.
  5. Elevated blood triglycerides.
  6. Miscarriage or fetal alcohol syndrome if the unborn child is exposed to alcohol.