A Guide to Alcohol

By The Fix staff 07/10/14

Alcohol is a colorless flammable liquid that is the intoxicating force inside of wine, beer, spirits, and other drinks. There are different kinds of alcohol. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol), the only alcohol used in beverages, is produced by the fermentation of grains and fruits. Fermenting is a chemical process whereby yeast acts upon certain ingredients in the food, creating alcohol. Fermented drinks, such as beer and wine, contain anywhere from 2% alcohol to 20% alcohol. Distilled drinks, or liquor, contain from 40% to 50% or more alcohol.

Alcohol is a legal sedative that contains no nutritional value. As is well known, alcohol distorts a person’s perceptions and judgment and can affect the way the user feels. People under the influence of alcohol readily admit their reaction time is slower than when not drinking.

More than 88,000 U.S. deaths each year are attributed to alcohol use.

Some facts: Distilled spirits are one of the highest taxed consumer products in the United States. The legal drinking age in most of the U.S. is 21 but the majority of countries have set the drinking age at 18. The U.S. beverage alcohol industry is a major contributor to the economy, responsible for more than $400 billion in total U.S. economic activity per year, generating nearly $100 billion in wages and more than 4 million jobs for U.S. workers.

How is Alcohol Used?

Consumed in liquid form, Alcohol is introduced into the bloodstream quickly. The amount and type of food in the user’s stomach can change how quickly this occurs. For example, high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods can make the user’s body absorb alcohol more slowly. After alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, it leaves the body in two ways. A total of about 10% leaves through breath, perspiration, and urine. The remainder is broken down through the process known as metabolism.

Alcohol is consumed by users in social, relaxing, or religious settings. It can be ingested in the form of wines, beer, mixed with non-alcoholic beverages for elongated use, or consumed in a small unmixed potent form usually referred to as a “shot.”

How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain?

There are a number of factors that influence how and to what extent alcohol affects the brain: How often a user drinks, the age at which the user begins alcohol consumption, the person’s current age and level of education, as well as the user’s general health status. The outward signs of drinking are: slurred speech, impaired vision, a stumbling walk, and a lapse in memory. The brain’s cerebellum, the center of balance, is affected leading to the stumbling walk of a drunk. Alcohol acts on the brain's medulla, slowing the user’s breathing and decreasing body temperature, which can cause death. In the cerebral cortex region of the brain, alcohol can decrease inhibitions and slow down the user’s thought processes as well as the processing of incoming visual and auditory information. Alcohol also affects the hypothalamus and pituitary, which increases sexual desire while decreasing actual performance.

Signs of Abuse

There is a distinction between alcoholics and alcohol abusers. Not all abusers develop alcohol dependence but it is a major risk factor. An alcohol abuser has some ability to set limits on their drinking while an alcoholic does not. An abuser of alcohol is still very self-destructive and dangerous to themselves and others. If a person is abusing alcohol, they often begin to neglect their responsibilities at work, school, or home. Abusers will use alcohol in dangerous situations such as mixing alcohol with prescription medication as a means to relax or de-stress. Alcohol is a sedative and over time users will need more to achieve a desired effect. Abusers may also experience legal problems, including arrests for being drunk and disorderly, for driving under the influence, or for domestic disputes while under the influence.

Long-Term Effects of Abuse

The long-term effects of continued alcohol abuse and binge drinking are associated with a slew of health problems. Abusers can suffer from memory loss, liver disease, sleep impairment, nerve damage, sexual issues, permanent damage to the brain, inflammation of the stomach walls, cancer of the mouth and throat, malnutrition, alcohol poisoning, and high blood pressure. Long-term users may experience brain shrinkage as well as an increase in anger or other emotions in inappropriate settings. When heavy users stop drinking, they generally suffer from Delirium Tremens, which is a state of confusion accompanied by trembling and vivid hallucinations. 


An overdose of alcohol occurs when a person has a blood alcohol content (BAC) sufficient to produce impairments that increase the risk of harm. Overdoses can range in severity from problems with balance to coma or even to death. Alcohol overdosing is most commonly referred to as alcohol poisoning. This can occur when there is so much alcohol in the blood stream that areas of the brain controlling basic life-support functions, such as breathing and heart rate, begin to shut down. There are many symptoms of alcohol poisoning, and detecting them in advance is crucial. These include: Vomiting, seizures, blue-tinged or pale skin, irregular breathing, stupor, confusion, loss of coordination, and unconsciousness.

In the event of alcohol poisoning, never let the abuser sleep it off. The amount of alcohol in the user’s system continues to rise when they’re not drinking. Do not give the user coffee because alcohol dehydrates the system and coffee will add to this dehydration. Call emergency services if an overdose of alcohol is suspected.

Mixing with Other Drugs

Mixing alcohol with other drugs can have long-lasting and even lethal effects. Alcohol can increase the side effects of other drugs, such as increasing the risk of gastrointestinal damage after taking painkillers. When alcohol is taken with opiates such as morphine, heroin and codeine, it can seriously depress the central nervous system. One in four opiate deaths involve a combination of opiates and alcohol. Stimulant drugs like amphetamine and cocaine can cause temporary arousal when mixed with alcohol. However, users experience a reduced performance of the psychomotor skills, leaving them with increased feelings of anxiety and depression. Moreover, it is generally best to avoid mixing alcohol with antidepressant medication as the side effects can cause a spike in blood pressure that could become lethal.

When alcohol is mixed with antibiotics, it can lower the effectiveness of antibiotics and anti-viral drugs.

Drug Tests

Alcohol is a substance that is routinely screened for during in employee drug tests and of course during traffic stops. For the former It will show up in hair for two days. The time period that alcohol will remain in the user’s urine and blood is 6-24 hours. Some alcohol tests may measure ethyl glucuronide that can stay in urine for up to 80 hours. The time period is 12-24 hours for blood or oral fluids. Well-known breathalyzers are used by law enforcement to estimate blood alcohol content from a breath sample. The operator of a vehicle whose reading indicates a BAC over the legal limit will face misdemeanor criminal charges.

Legal Status

Under U.S. law, alcohol is a legal sedative. People of all ages are subject to state laws prohibiting the operation of motor vehicles while under the influence of alcohol. A number of other alcohol crime laws apply in most communities across the United States. The offense of public intoxication is a broad prohibition designed to curb the consumption of excess amounts of alcohol, and the disturbance to the public peace it can cause.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

The Fix staff consists of the editor-in-chief and publisher, a senior editor, an associate editor, an editorial coordinator, and several contributing editors and writers. Articles in Professional Voices, Ask an Expert, and similar sections are written by doctors, psychologists, clinicians, professors and other experts from universities, hospitals, government agencies and elsewhere. For contact and other info, please visit our About Us page.