Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, although in smaller amounts it may appear to have a mild stimulant effect.

The main psychoactive ingredient in alcoholic beverages is ethyl alcohol, produced through the fermentation of sugar by yeast. Alcoholic drinks vary in strength, e.g. beer and alcoholic sodas (1-9% alcohol), wines (10-15%) and spirits (35-55%).

A standard drink contains about 10 grams of pure alcohol. Hotels and restaurants usually serve alcohol in standard drink size glasses. Wine, however, is normally sold in 140 mL or 200 mL glasses.

One 200 mL glass of wine contains approximately two standard drinks. Glasses used at home are unlikely to be standard drink size.

The labels on alcoholic drink bottles and cans show the number of standard drinks they contain.


The effects of alcohol vary depending on a number of factors including:

  • type and quantity of alcohol consumed
  • age, weight and gender
  • body chemistry
  • food in the stomach
  • drinking experience
  • situation in which drinking occurs

Short-term effects

Although it varies between individuals, there is a relationship between the concentration of alcohol in the blood (Blood Alcohol Concentration – BAC) and its effects.

Mild euphoria and stimulation of behaviour occur initially with minor effects on performance which become more pronounced as the concentration of alcohol rises.

Unfortunately, people often believe they are performing better rather than much worse.

Intoxication risks

Intoxication is the most common cause of alcohol-related problems, leading to injuries and premature deaths. As a result, intoxication accounts for two-thirds of the years of life lost from drinking.

Alcohol is responsible for:

  • road accidents
  • fire injuries
  • falls and drowning
  • child abuse cases
  • of suicides
  • of industrial accidents

As well as deaths, short-term effects of alcohol result in illness and loss of work productivity (e.g. hangovers, drink driving offences)

Long-term effects

Long-term excessive alcohol consumption is associated with:

  • heart damage
  • high blood pressure and stroke
  • liver damage
  • cancers of the digestive system
  • other digestive system disorders (e.g. stomach ulcers)
  • sexual impotence and reduced fertility
  • increasing risk of breast cancer
  • sleeping difficulties
  • brain damage with mood and personality changes
  • concentration and memory problems

In addition to health problems, alcohol also impacts on relationships, finances, work, and may result in legal problems.

Tolerance and Dependence

A regular drinker may develop tolerance and dependence. Tolerance means that they feel less effect than they used to with the same amount of alcohol.

Dependence means that the alcohol becomes central in their life – a lot of time is spent thinking about alcohol, obtaining it, consuming it and recovering from it.

The person will find it difficult to stop drinking or to control the amount consumed.


Someone who is physically dependent on alcohol will experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking or substantially reduce their intake.

Symptoms usually commence 6-24 hours after the last drink, last for about 5 days and include:

  • tremor
  • nausea
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • sweating
  • headache
  • difficulty sleeping (may last several weeks)

Alcohol withdrawal can be very dangerous; people drinking more than 8 standard drinks a day are advised to discuss a decision to stop drinking with a doctor as medical treatment may be required to prevent complications.

Source: Drug and Alcohol Service of South Australia.

“Even in the most difficult of circumstances, you can gain from the experience by looking for the learning.” Eric Allenbaugh

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