Alcohol is the most widely used recreational drug in Australia. Used in moderation, alcohol is safe, but it's the opposite when it comes to binge drinking, alcoholism, drink driving or drink spiking.
No matter how old you are or whether you drink or not, it's important to know how alcohol affects people and to learn ways to minimise the risks.
The effects of alcohol
Alcohol can enter your bloodstream very quickly. Unlike food, it doesn't require digestion. Once consumed it can reach your brain within minutes.
Different people react differently to alcohol. This can be due to:
- the type of alcohol being consumed (amount, strength)
- the person drinking (sex, age, body weight, state of mind)
- the environment where drinking is happening (time of day, being alone, being active).
A few drinks might make you feel relaxed, but your ability to concentrate is reduced and your reflexes will slow down, making you clumsier.
After a few more drinks you may feel more confident, but you might also have slurred speech, mood swings and less co-ordination.
After even more drinks you may get confused or experience blurred vision, poor muscle control and poor judgement. This could cause you to get into arguments or fights, or to do something reckless or dangerous that risks injury.
Keep drinking and you'll start to feel nauseous. You may end up vomiting. The worst-case scenario is falling into a coma or dying.
That's just the physical effects. Because alcohol can lower your inhibitions there's a good chance that drinking too much could make you start an argument or a fight, or make you say or do things that upset or offend your friends.
Sometimes even the simple fact of being in an environment where lots of alcohol is being drunk can put you at risk of getting attacked - like getting involved in a fight you didn't start, or being sexually assaulted.
Hello Sunday Morning is a movement towards a better drinking culture that encourages people to manage their own drinking. You can start managing your drinking by taking their drinking quiz or downloading their app.
Heavy drinking or drinking just to get drunk is called "binge drinking". You should be aware of the dangers of bingeing. Check out our page on binge drinking, featuring a video about how much alcohol is safe to drink in a single night.
What's a standard drink?
A "standard drink" is a drink that contains 10 grams of pure alcohol.
Note that a standard drink is NOT equivalent to one beer, one glass of wine or one shot of spirits. Every kind of alcoholic drink has a different amount of alcohol in it, so the number of standard drinks in one serve of that kind of drink is also different.
Here's a very rough guide to how many standard drinks are in the more common serves of alcohol:
- one 30ml shot of spirits = 1 standard drink
- one stubbie of full strength beer = 1.4 standard drinks
- one glass of wine (usually around 150ml) = 1.4 standard drinks
- one can of premixed spirits = 1.4 to 2.1 standard drinks (depending on the spirit).
The Federal Government's National Health and Medical Research Council says that, generally speaking:
- for males, drinking more than 7-10 standard drinks on any one day is risky
- for females, drinking more than 5-6 standard drinks on any one day is risky.
For more about standard drinks, check out Say When.
The only way to sober up is to give your body time to process the alcohol you've consumed.
It takes a healthy liver roughly an hour to process three-quarters of a standard drink. This can vary according to your size, gender and general health.
- if you drink 10 pots of beer it will take at least 10 hours for the alcohol to leave your system
- if you drink 2 glasses of wine (200ml) it will be at least 2 hours before the alcohol leaves your system.
Despite what you may have heard, the following have no effect in reducing the level of alcohol in a person's body:
- drinking coffee
- taking a shower
- going for a swim
In fact, your blood alcohol level can continue to rise 3 hours after your last drink. Your body simply needs time to recover.
Anyone driving under a Learner or Provisional (red P1 and green P2) licence has to have a blood alcohol concentration of zero. If you're a learner, your supervising driver, must also have a blood alcohol concentration of zero.
Alcoholism and alcohol dependency
There is no set definition of an alcoholic. Organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous say that it's up to the individual to decide for themselves if they are an alcoholic or not. However, there are some common behaviours that are agreed upon as signs that someone may be dependent on alcohol, including:
- being unable to control or manage your drinking
- needing a drink first thing in the morning after waking up
- having memory lapses when drinking
- getting into trouble (arguments, fights) regularly when drinking.
Regular consumption of large amounts of alcohol has a negative effect on your physical and mental health. It also negatively affects friendships and relationships with family members, and the ability to do what is needed for school, uni or work.
People who drink a lot on a regular basis can become dependent on alcohol. This means they start to need a drink in order to operate "normally". They may also develop a tolerance, which means they need to drink more to get the same effect.
People who are dependent on alcohol find it very difficult to stop using it. If a dependent person stops drinking, they may have withdrawal symptoms.
Withdrawal symptoms usually start about 4–12 hours after the last drink and can continue for about 4–5 days.
These symptoms can include:
The Youth Support and Advocacy Service (YSAS) in Melbourne has some helpful information about withdrawal, including what to expect, how to prepare for it and where to find help.
Help with alcohol problems
If you have a friend or family member with an alcohol problem and you are unsure of how to help them you can talk to counsellors, doctors and health professionals about the issue.
Counsellors and health professionals provide confidential advice and can refer you to a drug service that is right for you or your friend or family member. You can find a counsellor by:
- contacting the Youth Support and Advocacy Service (YSAS) on 1800 014 446
- calling Directline on 1800 888 236 (24 hours a day)
- contacting one of the organisations on the Alcohol and Drug Foundation Help & Support page
- calling the Family Drug Helpline on 1300 660 068 (Victoria only)
- visiting your doctor or your local health service.
Check out the Links at the bottom of the page for more places that can provide information or help with alcohol or other drugs.
Other risks with alcohol
There are other risks associated with alcohol beside the health and social effects, including the risk of drink driving, the issue of violence and alcohol, and the risk of drink spiking.
Roughly one quarter of all fatalities on Victorian roads are related to drink driving. If you're stopped by police and asked to take a breath test, you must do so. If you don't, you can be charged, fined and disqualified from driving for at least two years.
If you're a P-Plater you're not allowed to have any alcohol in your system while driving. If you're on your full license, your blood alcohol content can't be more than 0.05.
For more information:
- The VicRoads website has information about all of the road rules relating to alcohol and drugs.
- The TAC website has information about drink driving statistics in Victoria.
- The Better Health Channel also has lots of info about the dangers of drink driving.
Alcohol and violence
Alcohol can make a person's behaviour become abusive or violent. No one has to put up with any kind of abuse. If you need help and support because someone close to you is drinking and becoming abusive you can:
- phone Lifeline on 131 114
- phone Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.
Drink spiking is when someone sneaks alcohol or drugs into your drink. If you've had your drink spiked you can lose control very quickly and can be put in a position where you may be sexually assaulted, robbed or harmed.
To protect yourself from the risk of drink spiking, it's a good idea to:
- party with trusted friends
- arrange how you'll look out for each other while out
- buy your own drinks
- watch the bartender prepare your drink
- not accept any drinks from strangers.
The Better Health Channel's page on drink spiking has more information.
Alcohol and the law
If you're under 18 it's illegal to either carry alcohol or consume it in a public place. It's also illegal to be in a venue that serves alcohol (unless you're with a responsible adult over 18).
If you're over 18, buying alcohol for your friends who are under 18 is illegal in Victoria. If you're caught out, you could be up for a fine.
It's also illegal in Victoria to provide alcohol to anyone under 18 when you're in a private residence, like someone's home, unless you have specific permission from that person's parents or guardians.
For more information, Victoria Legal Aid has a summary of the laws in Victoria about underage drinking.
Hello Sunday Morning
A movement towards a better drinking culture. Start your journey by doing their drinking quiz or downloading their app.
Better Health Channel - Alcohol
Information about alcohol, from social drinking to the health effects of alcohol.
Simple tools for staying in control of your drinking, including a drink check chart, a drink calculator and tools to monitor your own drinking profile.
Youth Support and Advocacy Service (YSAS)
Youth-focussed organisation running detox programs and providing support for young people with substance abuse issues.
Support for relatives, friends of alcoholics and teenagers whose lives have been affected by someone else's drinking.
Not-for-profit organisation seeking to help alcoholics to reduce and quit their drinking.