(Ethyl alcohol, beverage alcohol, ethanol)
Alcohol is a depressant because it slows down parts of the brain and the nervous system.
Forms and Appearance
Ethyl alcohol is a clear liquid. The colour and appearance of commercial alcohol depends on what is combined with it, as an additive, or to dilute it.
Medical and Other Uses
In the past, alcohol was used as an anaesthetic. However, the high doses needed were dangerous. Some doctors recommend the occasional use of alcohol, (e.g. a small sherry), as a mild sedative and to help induce sleep, particularly for elderly patients. Small amounts of alcohol can also improve appetite and digestion.
Combining alcohol with other drugs can be dangerous. Mixing over-the-counter or prescribed medications with alcohol can reduce their effectiveness. Mixing alcohol with minor tranquillisers or marijuana can affect judgment and co-ordination and even cause breathing failure.
Methods of Use
Alcohol is almost always taken orally.
Safe Drinking Guidelines
A standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol. For light beer this is equal to one schooner; for full strength beer, this is equal to one middie; for wine this is equal to one small glass which is 100 mls; for fortified wines, such as port or sherry, this is equal to one 60 ml glass; for spirits this is one nip which is 30 mls.
As a general guide, one can of ordinary beer contains about one and a half standard drinks. One bottle of wine contains seven standard drinks. One 750 ml bottle of port or sherry contains 11 standard drinks. One 750 ml bottle of spirits contains 24 standard drinks.
Home measures of alcohol tend to be larger and can make counting standard drinks difficult.
Safe drinking guidelines are based on standard drinks. The National Health and Medical Research Council recommend the following guidelines for low risk drinking: women should have no more than 2 standard drinks per day, that is 20 grams of alcohol. Men should have no more than 4 standard drinks per day, that is 40 grams of alcohol.
A harmful level of drinking for women is more than 4 standard drinks per day; for men, it is more than 6 standard drinks per day.
The amount of alcohol in the bloodstream is called the blood alcohol concentration or BAC. Blood alcohol concentration is determined by how much alcohol a person drinks and over what period of time.
The legal BAC in NSW and Queensland for driving a car or riding a motor bike is .05. Drivers on P and L plates in NSW must not exceed a BAC of .02 (zero in Queensland). Drivers of heavy vehicles and public passenger vehicles such as buses and dangerous goods vehicles must maintain a BAC of .02 in NSW (zero in Qld).
In order to stay safely below .05 drivers are advised to limit their drinking. Men should drink no more than 2 standard drinks in the first hour and no more than 1 standard drink every hour after that. Women should drink no more than 1 standard drink in the first hour and no more than 1 standard drink every hour after that. To stay under .02 it is best to avoid drinking altogether as just 1 standard drink could be enough to put you over the limit.
Some people’s blood alcohol concentration will be higher after drinking the same amount of alcohol as other people. There are a number of reasons for this including: drinking on an empty stomach, the person is of small build; the person may be overweight and in poor health.
A healthy liver can only get rid of 1 standard drink an hour. So after a heavy night of drinking a person may feel OK but they may still be over the .05 driving limit.
Effects of Use
The effects of alcohol depend on:
- the amount drunk
- the person’s experience with alcohol
- their expectations
- the mood they are in
- whether they’ve eaten
- whether they’ve taken other drugs.
Alcohol passes straight into the blood stream from the small intestine and stomach.
Immediate effects include feeling relaxed and less inhibited, followed by reduced concentration, slurred speech and blurred vision. Alcohol also affects coordination and judgement and can also causes aggressive behaviour.
One unpleasant effect of heavy drinking is a hangover. Symptoms include headache, nausea, shakiness and possibly vomiting. Alcohol is broken down by the liver, but even a healthy liver can only get rid of about one standard drink an hour. Therefore, sobering up takes time. Black coffee, cold showers, exercise, or vomiting does not speed up the work of the liver. Vomiting only removes the alcohol in the stomach that has not had time to be absorbed into the bloodstream. At most, the last drink will be eliminated. Taking a shower or drinking black coffee may help someone to feel more awake, but it will not reduce their blood alcohol content.
Anyone who regularly drinks a lot of alcohol will probably experience some physical, emotional or social problems. Physical problems include liver damage, heart and blood disorders, stomach inflammation and brain damage. Impotence and menstrual irregularity can also occur. Emotional problems can include depression or relationship and family problems. Poor work performance, financial difficulties and legal problems may be some of the social problems experienced at times.
Alcohol is also involved in many suicides and accidental deaths every year.
Alcohol and Pregnancy
Alcohol used during pregnancy can harm the unborn baby. It has been linked with higher risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. The most serious outcome is foetal alcohol syndrome. Women who give birth to foetal alcohol syndrome babies average at least six drinks a day during their pregnancies. The effects of foetal alcohol syndrome range from mild to severe: Lower birth weight, smaller heads and flattened facial features are common. Central nervous system damage can result in intellectual disabilities, poor coordination and movement skills. Birthmarks, heart defects, curvature of the spine and cleft palate can also occur. When the baby is born it may withdraw from alcohol. Tremors, irritability, fits and a bloated stomach are all withdrawal symptoms. The baby is at greater risk of harm during the first 3 months of pregnancy as the major organs and limbs are starting to form during that time. Women who are trying to become pregnant should think about cutting down or not drinking alcohol, even before the pregnancy is confirmed.
Medical research is still investigating if safe drinking levels exist for pregnant women. Until results are more conclusive, the National Health and Medical Research Council recommends that women not drink any alcohol when pregnant.
Tolerance and Dependence
People who drink regularly can develop tolerance. This means they need to drink larger amounts of alcohol to get the same effects as before. This happens because the liver develops the ability to break the alcohol down more quickly. The brain also becomes less sensitive to the effects of small amounts of alcohol.
Cross-tolerance can also develop between alcohol and many other sedative/hypnotic drugs. That is, once a person is tolerant to the desired effects of alcohol, they will also be tolerant to the same effects produced by most other sedative/hypnotic drugs.
Regular drinkers can also become dependent on alcohol. They have a strong desire to continue to drink because alcohol has become important in their daily lives.
If alcohol is unavailable, people may panic or feel anxious. Withdrawal occurs when a dependent person stops using alcohol or severely cuts down the amount they drink. Symptoms include sweating, tremors, vomiting, convulsions and hallucinations.
Severe overdose may result in stupor or coma, with cold and clammy skin, low body temperature, depressed breathing, and increased heart rate. Death from suicides and accidents most typically result from overdose combinations of alcohol and sedatives.