Medical Services Patients & Visitors Health Information For Medical Professionals Quality About Us
Text Size:  -   +  |  Print Page  |  Email Page

Alcohol use and safe drinking


Alcohol use involves drinking beer, wine, or hard liquor.

Alternative Names

Beer consumption; Wine consumption; Hard liquor consumption; Safe drinking


Alcohol is one of the most widely used drug substances in the world.


Alcohol use is not only an adult problem. Most American high school seniors have had an alcoholic drink within the past month. This is in spite of the fact that the legal drinking age is 21 years old in the U.S.

About 1 in 5 teens are considered "problem drinkers." This means that they:

  • Get drunk
  • Have accidents related to alcohol use
  • Get into trouble with the law, family members, friends, school, or dates because of alcohol


Alcoholic drinks have different amounts of alcohol in them:

  • Beer is about 5% alcohol, although some beers can have more.
  • Wine is usually 12 to 15% alcohol.
  • Hard liquor is about 45% alcohol.

Alcohol gets into your bloodstream quickly.

The amount and type of food in your stomach can change how quickly this occurs. For example, high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods can make your body absorb alcohol more slowly.

Certain types of alcoholic drinks get into your bloodstream faster. Stronger drinks tend to be absorbed faster.

Alcohol slows your breathing rate, heart rate, and how well your brain functions. These effects may appear within 10 minutes and peak at around 40 to 60 minutes. Alcohol stays in your bloodstream until it is broken down by the liver. The amount of alcohol in your blood is called your "blood alcohol level." If you drink alcohol faster than the liver can break it down, this level rises.

Your blood alcohol level is used to legally define whether or not you are drunk. The legal limit for blood alcohol usually falls between 0.08 and 0.10 in most states. Below is a list of blood alcohol levels and the likely symptoms:

  • 0.05 -- reduced inhibitions
  • 0.10 -- slurred speech
  • 0.20 -- euphoria and motor impairment
  • 0.30 -- confusion
  • 0.40 -- stupor
  • 0.50 -- coma
  • 0.60 -- respiratory paralysis and death

You can have symptoms of "being drunk" at blood alcohol levels below the legal definition of being drunk. Also, people who drink alcohol frequently may not have symptoms until a higher blood alcohol level is reached.


Alcohol increases the risk of:

  • Alcoholism
  • Falls, drownings, and other accidents
  • Head, neck, stomach, and breast cancers
  • Motor vehicle accidents
  • Risky sex behaviors, unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • Suicide and homicide

Drinking during pregnancy can harm the developing baby. Severe birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome are possible.


If you drink alcohol, it is best to do so in moderation. Moderation means the drinking is not getting you intoxicated (or drunk) and you are drinking no more than 1 drink per day if you are a woman and no more than 2 if you are a man. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.

Here are some ways to drink responsibly, provided you do not have a drinking problem, are of legal age to drink alcohol, and are not pregnant:

  • Never drink alcohol and drive a car.
  • If you are going to drink, have a designated driver, or plan an alternative way home, such as a taxi or bus.
  • Do not drink on an empty stomach. Snack before and while drinking alcohol.

If you are taking medication, including over-the-counter drugs, check with your doctor before drinking alcohol. Alcohol can make the effects of many medicines stronger. It can also interact with other medicines, making them ineffective or dangerous or make you sick.

If alcohol use runs in your family, you may be at increased risk of developing this disease yourself. So, you may want to avoid drinking alcohol altogether.


  • You are concerned about your personal alcohol use or that of a family member
  • You are interested in more information regarding alcohol use or support groups
  • You are unable to reduce or stop your alcohol consumption, in spite of attempts to stop drinking

Other resources include:

  • Local Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-anon/Alateen groups
  • Local hospitals
  • Public or private mental health agencies
  • School or work counselors
  • Student or employee health centers


American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and health. Accessed on March 30, 2015.

O'Connor PG. Alcohol abuse and dependence. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 32.

Sherin K, Seikel S. Alcohol use disorders. Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 49.

U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening and behavioral counseling interventions in primary care to reduce alcohol misuse: recommendation statement. Released May 2013. Accessed on March 30, 2015.

Review Date: 3/4/2015
Reviewed By: Timothy Rogge, MD, Medical Director, Family Medical Psychiatry Center, Kirkland, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.