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FAQ About Alcohol

The effects of alcohol
The effects of any drug depend on several factors
Blood Alcohol Concentration (ma/dL) Effect
What is Alcohol?
How Alcohol Works
Alcohol Addiction
Tolerance and Dependence

The effects of alcohol

Alcohol affects people differently, depending on their size, sex, body build, and metabolism. General effects are a feeling of warmth, flushed skin, impaired judgment, decreased inhibitions, muscular in coordination, slurred speech, and memory and comprehension loss. In states of extreme intoxication, vomiting is likely to occur, possibly accompanied by incontinence, poor respiration, a fall in blood pressure, and in cases of severe alcohol poisoning, coma and death.

Drinking heavily over a short period of time usually results in a "hangover" - headache, nausea, shakiness, and sometimes vomiting, beginning from 8 to 12 hours later. A hangover is due partly to poisoning by alcohol and other components of the drink, and partly to the body's reaction to withdrawal from alcohol.

Combining alcohol with other drugs can make the effects of these other drugs much stronger and more dangerous. Many accidental deaths have occurred after people have used alcohol combined with other drugs. Cannabis, tranquillizers, barbiturates and other sleeping pills, or antihistamines (in cold, cough, and allergy remedies) should not be taken with alcohol. Even a small amount of alcohol with any of these drugs can seriously impair a person's ability to drive a car.

Non-drinkers brain activationThis shows a 20-year old female non drinkers response to the spatial working memory task. Brain activation is shown in bright colours.
Alcoholics brain activationThis shows an alcohol-dependent 20-year old female's response to the spatial working memory task. Brain activation is shown in bright colours.

People who drink on a regular basis become tolerant to many of the unpleasant effects of alcohol, and thus are able to drink more before suffering these effects. Yet even with increased consumption, many such drinkers don't appear intoxicated. Because they continue to work and socialize reasonably well, their deteriorating physical condition may go unrecognized by others until severe damage develops - or until they are hospitalized for other reasons and suddenly experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Psychological dependence on alcohol may occur with regular use of even relatively moderate daily amounts. It may also occur in people who consume alcohol only under certain conditions, such as before and during social occasions. This form of dependence refers to a craving for alcohol's psychological effects, although not necessarily in amounts that produce serious intoxication. For psychologically dependent drinkers, the lack of alcohol tends to make them anxious and, in some cases, panicky.

Physical dependence occurs in consistently heavy drinkers. Since their bodies have adapted to the presence of alcohol, they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking. Withdrawal symptoms range from jumpiness, sleeplessness, sweating, and poor appetite, to tremors (the "shakes"), convulsions. hallucinations. and sometimes death.

Alcohol abuse can take a negative toll on people's lives, fostering violence or a deterioration of personal relationships. Alcoholic behaviour can interfere with school or career goals and lead to unemployment.

Long term alcohol abuse poses a variety of health risks, such as as liver damage and an increased risk for heart disease. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome may result from a pregnant woman's drinking alcohol; this condition causes facial abnormalities in the child, as well as growth retardation and brain damage, which often is manifested by intellectual difficulties or behavioural problems.

social drinkers / alcoholics brain

The left image is an averaged image of 10 non-drinker/social drinker young women, and the right is an averaged image of the 10 alcohol-dependent young women. Red, orange, and yellow show where the brain was active during spatial working memory, with yellow indicating the highest level of activity. Notice that there is less yellow in the back (bottom of the picture) right of the alcohol-dependent women's fMRI

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The effects of any drug depend on several factors:

  • the amount taken at one time
  • the user's past drug experience
  • the manner in which the drug is taken
  • the circumstances under which the drug is taken (the place, the user's psychological and emotional stability, the presence of other people, the concurrent use of other drugs, etc.).

It is the amount of alcohol in the blood that causes the effects. In the following table, the left-hand column lists the number of milligrams of alcohol in each decilitre of blood - that is, the blood alcohol concentration, or BAC. (For example, an average person may get a blood alcohol concentration of 50 mg/dL after two drinks consumed quickly.) The right-hand column describes the usual effects of these amounts on normal people - those who haven't developed a tolerance to alcohol.

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Blood Alcohol Concentration (ma/dL) Effect

 
50 Feeling of warmth, skin flushed; impaired judgment;
decreased inhibitions
100 Obvious intoxication in most people
Increased impairment of judgment, inhibition, attention, and control;
Some impairment of muscular performance; slowing of reflexes
150 Obvious intoxication in all normal people
Staggering gait and other muscular lack of co-ordination; slurred
speech; double vision; memory and comprehension loss
250 Extreme intoxication or stupor
Reduced response to stimuli; inability to stand; vomiting;
incontinence; sleepiness
350 Coma
Unconsciousness; little response to stimuli; incontinence;
low body temperature; poor respiration; fall in blood
pressure; clammy skin
500 Death likely

What is Alcohol?

Alcohol is often not thought of as a drug - largely because its use is common for both religious and social purposes in most parts of the world. It is a drug, however, and compulsive drinking in excess has become one of modern society's most serious problems. The beverage alcohol (scientifically known as ethyl alcohol, or ethanol) is produced by fermenting or distilling various fruits, vegetables, or grains. Ethyl alcohol itself is a clear, colourless liquid. Alcoholic beverages get their distinctive colours from the diluents, additives, and by-products of fermentation.

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How Alcohol Works:

Alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream from the small intestine, and less rapidly from the stomach and colon. In proportion to its concentration in the bloodstream, alcohol decreases activity in parts of the brain and spinal cord. The drinker's blood alcohol concentration depends on:

  • the amount consumed in a given time
  • the drinker's size, sex, body build, and metabolism
  • the type and amount of food in the stomach.

Once the alcohol has passed into the blood, however, no food or beverage can retard or interfere with its effects. Fruit sugar, however, in some cases can shorten the duration of alcohol's effect by speeding up its elimination from the blood.

In the average adult, the rate of metabolism is about 8.5 g of alcohol per hour (i.e. about two-thirds of a regular beer or about 30 mL of spirits an hour). This rate can vary dramatically among individuals, however, depending on such diverse factors as usual amount of drinking, physique, sex, liver size, and genetic factors.

Alcohol is any of a class of organic compounds with the general formula ROH, where R represents an alkyl group made up of carbon and hydrogen in various proportions and OH represents one or more hydroxyl groups . In common usage the term alcohol usually refers to ethanol . The class of alcohols also includes methanol ; the amyl, butyl, and propyl alcohols; the glycols ; and glycerol . An alcohol is generally classified by the number of hydroxyl groups in its molecule. An alcohol that has one hydroxyl group is called monohydric; monohydric alcohols include methanol, ethanol, and isopropanol . Glycols have two hydroxyl groups in their molecules and so are dihydric. Glycerol, with three hydroxyl groups, is trihydric. The monohydric alcohols are further classified as primary, secondary, or tertiary according to the number of carbon atoms bonded to the carbon atom to which the hydroxyl group is bonded.

Many of the properties and reactions characteristic of alcohols are due to the electron charge distribution in the COH portion of the molecule (see chemical bond ). Chemical reactions involving the hydroxyl group in an alcohol molecule include: those in which the hydroxyl group is replaced as a whole, e.g., reaction of ethanol with hydrogen iodide to form ethyl iodide and water; those in which only the hydrogen in the hydroxyl group is replaced, e.g., the reaction of ethanol with sodium, an active metal, to form sodium ethoxide and hydrogen; and those in which the carbon-oxygen bond becomes a double bond to form an aldehyde or ketone depending on whether it is a primary or secondary alcohol. Alcohols are generally less volatile, have higher melting points, and are more soluble in water than the corresponding hydrocarbons (in which the OH group is replaced with hydrogen). For example, at room temperature methanol is a liquid, while methane is a gas.

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Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol abuse: A destructive pattern of alcohol use, leading to significant social, occupational, or medical impairment.

1. Alcohol tolerance:

Either need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication, or markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.

2. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms:

Two (or more) of the following, developing within several hours to a few days of reduction in heavy or prolonged alcohol use:

  • Sweating or Rapid Pulse
  • Increased Hand Tremor
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea or Vomiting
  • Physical Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Transient Visual, Tactile or Auditory Hallucinations or Illusions
  • Grand Mal Seizures

3. Alcohol is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

4. Alcohol was often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended

5. Persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use

6. Great deal of time spent in using alcohol, or recovering from hangovers

7. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities given up or reduced because of alcohol use.

Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been worsened by alcohol (e.g., continued drinking despite knowing that an ulcer was made worse by drinking alcohol)

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Tolerance and Dependence:

People who drink on a regular basis become tolerant to many of the unpleasant effects of alcohol, and thus are able to drink more before suffering these effects. Yet even with increased consumption, many such drinkers don't appear intoxicated. Because they continue to work and socialize reasonably well, their deteriorating physical condition may go unrecognized by others until severe damage develops - or until they are hospitalized for other reasons and suddenly experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

Psychological dependence on alcohol may occur with regular use of even relatively moderate daily amounts. It may also occur in people who consume alcohol only under certain conditions, such as before and during social occasions. This form of dependence refers to a craving for alcohol's psychological effects, although not necessarily in amounts that produce serious intoxication. For psychologically dependent drinkers, the lack of alcohol tends to make them anxious and, in some cases, panicky.

Physical dependence occurs in consistently heavy drinkers. Since their bodies have adapted to the presence of alcohol, they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly stop drinking. Withdrawal symptoms range from jumpiness, sleeplessness, sweating, and poor appetite, to tremors (the "shakes"), convulsions. hallucinations. and sometimes death.

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