Alcohol Is a Dangerous Drug

Alcohol is dangerous. Sure, it has been used throughout history for social occasions, to celebrate milestones, to observe holidays, to toast the bride and groom, and yes, we've heard the story about Jesus turning water into wine.

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Alcohol Is a Very Harmful Drug

Friends Drinking Alcohol
Alcohol Itself Is Not Evil. © Getty Images

Alcohol itself is not inherently evil. When used responsibly, alcohol can turn social gatherings into pleasant and enjoyable experiences. But when it is misused, alcohol can do more overall harm than any other drug in the world.

So, to keep your alcohol consumption safe, exactly how much can you drink? How much is too much and what happens if you exceed the recommended levels? On the following pages, as part of Alcohol Awareness Month, you will find the recommended guidelines for alcohol and you may be surprised at just how little alcohol it takes to become dangerous.​​

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At-Risk Drinking

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Safe Is 3 Drinks, Not 3 Bottles. © Getty Images

According to research funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, these are the levels at which alcohol consumption is considered risky:

For Men: Five or more drinks during any one drinking session, or more than 14 drinks a week.

For Women: Four drinks or more during a day, or more than seven drinks a week.

If you drink as few as five drinks a day, you are considered a "heavy" drinker and therefore at risk for developing alcohol use disorders, as well as health and other problems because of the level of your alcohol consumption.

Even if you drink only three days a week, if you drink a six-pack on those days, your drinking is at harmful levels.

People who drink less than the above guidelines are at "low risk" for developing problems. That means they have about a 2% chance of developing alcohol-related problems. The only way to be at no risk of having alcohol-related problems is to not drink at all.

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    Binge Drinking

    One Can Left in Six Pack
    A 6-Pack in One Day Is Binge Drinking. © Getty Images

    You may have heard that binge drinking is particularly harmful. But, what exactly constitutes binge drinking? You may be surprised to find out how few drinks it takes to make you a binge drinker.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four or more drinks during a single drinking session for women and five or more drinks during a single occasion for men is considered binge drinking.

    In other words, if your usual drinking pattern includes drinking a six-pack while watching the game or drinking an entire bottle of wine during an evening, you are a binge drinker.

    According to the CDC, if you binge drink only one day a month, you are 20% more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than nondrinkers. If you binge drink once a week, your risk of developing a drinking problem rises to 33%.

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      Alcohol Is an Adult Beverage

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      Alcohol is an adult beverage. Throughout the United States, the legal drinking age is 21 and there are some very good reasons why.

      First, research shows that early onset drinking is linked to alcohol use disorders in later adulthood. The earlier in life a person begins drinking, the more like they will end up with serious alcohol problems later.

      Because the human brain is still developing up until age 21 (actually until about age 24), heavy drinking by children and teens can cause cognitive and learning disabilities.

      Also, underage drinking is linked to increased injury and deaths. When some states dropped the legal drinking age to 18 in the 1970s, alcohol-related fatalities skyrocketed in those states. The 18 to 24 age group is already more prone to have fatal traffic mishaps, drinking alcohol multiplies that risk.

      It is no accident that Alcohol Awareness Month is held in April — the beginning of prom and graduation season for high school students. One-third of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involving teens each year happen between April and June, the prom-graduation season.

      If you are not yet 21, the safest decision you can make is to wait until you are old enough to drink legally. Just because you are going to prom or you graduate from high school doesn't suddenly make drinking alcohol a good idea.

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        Dangers of Alcohol Impairment

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        Impairment Increases the Risks. © Getty Images

        Drinking alcohol can impair your ability to react and lower your inhibitions, both of which can cause you serious problems. Research shows that alcohol consumption can impair reaction times and decision-making at blood-alcohol levels much lower than the .08 legal intoxication level.

        Being physically and mentally impaired by alcohol is simply dangerous. You are more prone to unintentional injury and death, in and out of the home. Drunk driving rates have dropped drastically over the past 10 years, but 10,076 people still died in alcohol-related vehicle crashes in 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

        People who drink to the level of intoxication are not only more prone to injuries, they are also more likely to engage in unsafe sex and other problem behaviors.

        Again, young people are more susceptible to the dangers of alcohol impairment than older adults. Each year, among students ages 18 to 24, almost 600,000 are injured while under the influence of alcohol and 1,825 of those students are killed. An estimated 690,000 students each year are physically assaulted by other students who have been drinking.

        Government surveys reveal that more than 97,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault each year and that number may be low because many such assaults and date rapes go unreported. It's probably no coincidence that April is not only Alcohol Awareness Month, but it is also Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

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          Health Effects of Alcohol

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          Alcohol Abuse Has Consequences. © Getty Images

          If you are an at-risk drinker, a binge drinker, a heavy drinker, a chronic drinker, a daily drinker, or a long-time occasional drinker, chances are your health is going to be negatively affected by alcohol in some way. It's not really a question of if, it's a question of when.

          Alcohol consumption at harmful levels can eventually affect every system in the body. The list of health effects of alcohol (see below) is massive. It can damage the liver, the heart, the brain, and many other organs in the body.

          Alcohol is a known carcinogen. It has been linked to cancers of the head and neck, breast cancer, liver cancer and colon cancer, among others. The more alcohol you consume, the greater the risk of developing some types of cancer, research shows.

          If you have ever had a hangover, or if you have ever experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you quit drinking for awhile, that was your body telling you that you are drinking too much!

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            Risk of Alcohol Overdose

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            You Can Overdose on Alcohol. © Getty Images

            Yes, you can die from an overdose of alcohol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 2,221 people over age 15 die each year of acute alcohol poisoning. That's an average of six deaths per day.

            When you first begin drinking alcohol, it initially acts as a stimulant in your brain, but as you continue to consume more alcohol, it then begins to act like a depressant. That's because alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. That means if you consume excessive amounts of alcohol you can stop breathing.

            If you drink excessive amounts of alcohol because you want to impress your friends or fraternity brothers, or you try to drink 21 shots on your 21st birthday, or if you go on a bender for several days and become so intoxicated you lose track of how much you have had to drink, you can end up dead.

            One of the more common ways that alcohol deaths occur is when alcohol is combined with other drugs or medications such as sedatives or painkillers.

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              Reduce the Risks of Alcohol Consumption

              Measuring a Mixed Drink
              Take Steps to Reduce Your Harm. © Getty Images

              The good news about harmful drinking levels is you can take steps to reduce the harm. If your drinking has caused you any negative consequences — health, social, economic or legal — you may want to cut back on your consumption.

              Any steps that you take to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink will reduce its harmful effects. You may be able to cut down on the number of drinks you have per session or reduce the number of drinking days you have per month. Either method will reduce the harm (see tips below).

              However, you may find that you are not able to cut back on your drinking for any significant period of time. Try as you might, you may find that you return to your previous drinking level in spite of your best efforts. If that is the case, your best option may be to quit drinking altogether.

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