The main constituent of an alcoholic beverage such as beer, wine and whisky is ethyl alcohol (ethanol) which is a by-product of fermented fruits, vegetables or grain. Methyl alcohol (methylated spirit produced from wood) can also be used to get intoxicated because of its cheapness, but luckily this is fairly rare, as 'meths' is poisonous and can be fatal.

It is estimated that around 90% of the adult population uses alcohol in some way, with men drinking the equivalent of 2 pints of beer on average, and women about half a pint per day. However, around 6% of males and 1% of females consistently exceed what is accepted as the medically 'safe' limit i.e. over 5 - 6 standard drinks daily for men, 3 - 4 for women. A standard drink is judged by its alcohol content, thus half a pint of beer or cider is equivalent to 1 measure of spirits, is equivalent to 1 glass of wine.

Teenage alcoholism is a growing problem and one swamped by the media coverage of adolescent heroin use. Figures estimate that 60% of young people between 13 - 17 have been drunk at least once, and around 40% drink more than once a week. In the late teens to early 20's, it has been estimated alcohol consumption can be as much as 40 - 50% above average, with greater incidence of drunken behaviour and heavy drinking However, this is likely to be a short period in the drinking cycle with patterns of use stabilising by the mid 20's.



The metabolism of alcohol in the body is affected by a number of factors. Women absorb alcohol faster than men, as do people with a slim body build against fat or muscular body builds. The presence of food (particularly carbohydrates) in the stomach also affects the rate of absorption.

Alcohol enters the blood stream within 5 -10 minutes of use, and, depending upon the above factors, remains active in the body for several hours. In small doses, 2-4 standard drinks, the user is likely to feel relaxed as inhibitions are lowered. Intellectual and motor responses are reduced, concentration is lowered and the underlying mood of the user determines behaviour.

As the level of alcohol intake increases, the user generally becomes uncoordinated and their speech tends to slur. If drinking continues and co-ordination gets worse, simple movements including walking become difficult and the user is likely to stagger and fall often. This stage is usually followed by unconsciousness, a state which carries the risk of suffocation if the user vomits and blocks his/her airways.

The alcohol hang-over occurs as the level of alcohol in the body starts to drop. Symptoms include headache, indigestion, nausea and vomiting, as a result of chronic dehydration. These symptoms are likely to last 5 -10 hours. The average sized man takes approximately 1 hour to metabolise 1 standard drink. The rate is determined by the efficiency of the liver which metabolises around 90% of the alcohol consumed. The remaining 10%. is excreted in the urine, on the breath, and in sweat.



Whilst regular, moderate drinking is unlikely to cause serious health problems, consumption upwards of 10 -14 (men) or 7 -10 (women) standard drinks daily or several times in a week increases the chance of ulcers, liver disease, heart and circulatory disorders and brain damage. In heavily dependent users, the tendency towards inadequate diet and high calorie intake from alcohol, can aggravate these conditions. Tolerance develops quite fast to the presence of alcohol in the body. Sudden withdrawal from heavy use can be life-threatening, producing symptoms such as sweating, anxiety, trembling, delirium ( DT's ) and possibly convulsions, coma and death. Any symptoms are exaggerated and more serious if other drugs are used in conjunction with alcohol.






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