Alcohol Abuse Facts

Alcohol abuse is a pattern of excessive drinking that results in adverse health and social consequences to the drinker. Learn More ›

Understanding Alcohol's Effects

If you understand how alcohol can affect you, it may help you to drink responsibly.

The following factors influence how people respond to alcohol, according to the National Institutes of Health and the American Medical Association.

The extent of alcohol's effect on the central nervous system depends upon how much is in your blood and how much blood you have. This is because alcohol is distributed through the body by the water in your bloodstream, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The more water in your blood, the more diluted the alcohol will be.

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Social Drinking vs. Problem Drinking

Some people can drink liquor for hours on end and stay sober, while others become tipsy after just one drink. So how can you tell if you or someone else is a problem drinker?

"If a person drinks repeatedly and the drinking causes personal, professional or family problems, they may have the disease of alcoholism," says Hamilton Beazley, Ph.D., a psychologist and former president of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Inc. "When alcoholics drink, they can't always predict how much they will drink, when they will stop, or what they will do while drinking. And it is common for alcoholics to deny the negative effects of drinking or that they even have a problem."

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How to Cut Down on Drinking

You might want to cut down on your drinking for many reasons. Unfortunately, the best of intentions don't necessarily make the effort any easier.

If you are going to drink alcohol, you should use it wisely and in moderation. And if you are one of the 10 to 15 percent of the population with alcoholism in your family, you should be careful not to drink too much or too often, or not to drink at all.

While alcohol may be relaxing and enjoyable in small doses, drinking it is not harmless recreation. The substance should be treated with respect.

It helps to understand why and when you drink if you are going to successfully reduce the amount of alcohol you consume. Your answers to the following questions may help bring your motives for drinking into focus.

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The Dangers of Binge Drinking

Too many young people are participating in a dangerous practice called binge drinking. It means drinking to intoxication. It's defined as having five or more drinks in a row for men. For women, it's four-plus drinks in a row.

According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education, 44 percent of U.S. college students are binge drinkers.

"For these students, intoxication is the main goal. And with intoxication may come many other dangers, including dizziness, loss of coordination, diarrhea, vomiting, lack of judgment, or even alcohol poisoning," says Don Timm II, M.D., an emergency medicine physician in Dallas.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking is linked with unintentional injuries. These include motor vehicle crashes, falls, burns, drowning, and hypothermia. Homicide, suicide, child abuse, domestic violence, hypertension, heart attack, gastritis, pancreatitis, sexually transmitted infections, meningitis, and poor control of diabetes also are the results of binge drinking.

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Alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous

Although Alcoholics Anonymous and other abstinence-based 12-step programs are the primary form of treatment for alcoholism in the United States, many people are unable to stick with them and return to dependence on alcohol.

Today there are alternatives to 12-step programs. Some treatment programs teach problem drinkers to reduce their drinking, an approach that appeals to people who otherwise might not seek treatment. These programs are based on the belief that people can change their drinking behaviors.

To be successful at moderation or abstinence requires effort and a commitment to change. You should take into account the severity of your drinking problem and any medical, psychological or other conditions that would be made worse by drinking, even in moderation. If you're unsure of the best program for you, ask your doctor or a substance abuse counselor for advice.

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Your Guide to Alcohol Abuse

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