Alcohol is known by a lot of names. Some of its many nicknames are booze, brews, hooch, hard stuff, sauce and juice. Whatever you call it, the important thing to remember is that in the United States, it is illegal for anyone under 21 to drink alcohol. And even after you turn 21, it is important to drink only in moderation.
The amount of alcohol in your blood, called blood alcohol content (BAC), can be measured with a breath test. If a young person is found to have a BAC measurement of .01 percent or higher, his or her ability to apply for a driver's license can be postponed for a whole year. Drinking alcohol also can have very serious health consequences -- even death.
What is alcohol?
There are different kinds of alcohol. For example, in your house you might have something called "rubbing alcohol" that is used to clean things. This type of alcohol is OK to use on your skin but would be poisonous if you tried to drink it.
The type of alcohol that people drink is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. It is found in beer, wine, and drinks called "spirits," such as gin or vodka. Ethanol is made by adding yeast to starches such as barley or grapes. The yeast, which is a fungus, eats the starch and turns the sugars in those starches to alcohol. This process also produces carbon dioxide, which is what makes alcoholic drinks such as beer and champagne bubbly. The various colors and tastes of different alcoholic drinks come from the different starches from which they are made.
Back to top
How does alcohol work?
Alcohol is a drug that goes through the bloodstream, into the stomach and small intestine, and then into the liver. The liver breaks down alcohol so it can be passed out of your body, but it can only do this at a speed equal to about one drink per hour. If there is more alcohol than the liver can handle, it continues to circulate in the blood. If the alcohol in the bloodstream reaches the brain, it affects how the person acts.
Back to top
What effect does alcohol have on the body?
Alcohol affects people differently. But in general, alcohol slows down your reaction times and your body's functions. When under the influence of alcohol, muscle coordination becomes more difficult, and your reflexes (automatic reactions, such as swerving away from an oncoming car) become slower. Alcohol reduces self-control, making you more likely to do stupid or unsafe things. It can also make you throw up, black out and/or forget everything you do while drunk.
Even if you don't have a lot to drink, you might wake up with a headache and feel sick the next day. This is called a hangover. But large amounts of alcohol can do even more serious damage. Over a long period, alcohol can hurt organs and increase the risk for certain diseases, including cancer. If someone drinks too much at one time, the brain and body can slow down so much that the heart stops beating and the person stops breathing. This can cause the person to go into a coma or even die.
The scariest fact? Alcohol-related incidents are the number one cause of death for 16- to 24-year olds. Alcohol is involved in many cases of drowning, car accidents, murder and suicide. These incidents could have been prevented if alcohol had not been involved.
If somebody in your family drinks a lot, don't hang out with them when they are drinking, and never get in a car if the driver has been drinking. Keep yourself safe and healthy. If you have friends who drink, back off and tell a grown-up. Your friends are putting themselves at risk. Avoiding alcohol as a kid is the best way to avoid developing drinking problems as an adult and protecting yourself against accidents at any age. Just say no!
Back to top
Author: Katie Ransohoff, high school student writer
Reviewed by the Web Content Committee of PAMF
Alcohol Facts, AcoholScreening.org.
Talking With Kids About Alcohol and Drugs, Too Smart to Start Organization.
Hotlines for Help
Talking With Kids, TalkingWithKids.org, Accessed February 2006