Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in the UK. In England in 2004, 74 per cent of men and 59 per cent of women reported drinking an alcoholic drink on at least one day in the week prior to interview. Fifteen per cent of men and 8 per cent of women reported drinking on every day in the previous week. Thirty-nine per cent of men and 22 per cent of women had drunk more than the recommended number of units on at least one day in the week prior to interview
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream and starts to have an effect within 5 to 10 minutes. The effect can last for several hours, depending on the amount consumed. The effect will also depend on:
After about two pints of beer most people feel less inhibited and more relaxed. Alcohol is a depressant drug. It acts on the central nervous system to slow the body down. Some people become aggressive and argumentative, especially men. A lot of violence on the streets and in the home (much of it directed at women and children) happens after people have been drinking.
After about 4 pints of average strength beer, drinkers become uncoordinated and slur their speech.
Drinking alcohol makes accidents more common, especially when people fall over, drive or are operating machinery. Lowering of inhibitions can make it more likely that people will put themselves in sexual situations which they later regret. They are also less likely to practice safer sex and use condoms if they have intercourse. Drinking too much in one go can lead to losing consciousness and death by choking on vomit.
Alcohol can also be very dangerous to take in combination with other drugs, especially other depressant drugs such as barbiturates, heroin, methadone or tranquillisers and drugs such as anti-depressants, anti-histamines and painkillers. Mixing these drugs and alcohol has led to many fatal overdoses.
Long term, heavy drinking can be very damaging. Physical dependence and tolerance develop so people drink more and more and suffer withdrawl symptoms if they try to stop unaided. For someone with severe alcohol dependence who experiences physical alcohol withdrawals when they cut down or stop drinking, suddenly cutting down or stopping can be dangerous without seeking medical advice.
Physical withdrawal symptoms include:
Psychological withdrawal symptoms include:
Severely dependent drinkers usually experience severe withdrawal symptoms. They often fall into a pattern of ‘relief drinking’, where they drink to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Severely dependent drinkers are often able to tolerate very high levels of alcohol, amounts that would incapacitate or even kill some people.
To help stop withdrawal symptoms usually a reducing dose of medication is prescribed over a short period of time, most usually ten to fourteen days. Heavy, long term drinking can also lead to damage to the heart, liver, stomach and brain and lead to obesity.
Pregnant women who drink six or more units of alcohol a day may give birth to babies who suffer withdrawal symptoms and also have facial abnormalities and retarded physical and mental development, which is called Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. Lesser degrees of drinking during pregnancy may result in a baby being born with a low birth weight. See the Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Aware UK site for more information.
Excessive drinking commonly aggravates personal, family, work and financial problems and contributes towards family breakdown, violence and other forms of crime associated with loss of control. The number of alcohol related deaths (where alcohol is mentioned on the death certificate) have more than doubled since 1979.