The dangerous effects of alcohol on teens include impaired judgment and coordination, which can lead to risky behaviors like drunk driving and unprotected sex. Alcohol consumption also affects brain development, potentially impacting learning and memory. Moreover, it increases the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence or addiction and can cause long-term damage to the liver and other organs. Additionally, it can exacerbate mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
Drinking is still a common pastime in the US – roughly 60 percent of adults have been consuming alcohol for decades, with rates sometimes fluctuating as low as 55 percent or as high as 71 percent. While drug use is generally vilified, the public perception of alcohol remains neutral.
Americans know to consume in moderation but don’t mind having a drink or two from time to time. Furthermore, Americans know and understand alcohol’s dangers to the brain and liver, as well as its negative social effects, and are generally in agreement with the National Health and Medical Research Council as to how much alcohol is “too much”.
But teen alcohol use is a completely different story. Teens and young adults binge drink far more than older populations, are more likely to drink and drive, and are more likely to struggle with alcohol use disorder as a result of heavy drinking. Understanding and relaying the facts on the dangerous effects of alcohol on teens is important.
Understanding the Effects of Alcohol on Teens
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, first and foremost. It acts on the brain by attaching to receptors that usually communicate with different neurotransmitters.
Alcohol is metabolized by the liver, and this process of metabolization cannot be sped up – meaning, you cannot get more sober by having a glass of water or some coffee. Until your liver is through with the alcohol in your bloodstream, it will continue to circulate through the blood-brain barrier and interact with your central nervous system.
Reactions to alcohol differ, as do effective doses. One drink (a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or a shot of liquor) may be enough to get certain people intoxicated, while others still feel sober. While alcohol is a depressant, it doesn’t have a solely sedative effect. Alcohol’s immediate effects on the mind and body include:
- Impaired hearing and vision
- Slurred speech
- Loss of coordination
- Poor judgment of depth and speed
- Cognitive impairment
Going overboard with alcohol can quickly lead to serious negative side effects, as well. These can include:
- Memory loss
- Inhibited/stopped breathing
- Blacking out/fainting
Something teens often don’t know, or underestimate is the human mind’s inability to judge drunkenness in itself. You often cannot truly notice whether you’re drunk until you’re very drunk. For a lot of teens, it takes no more than a BAC of 0.1 percent to be very drunk. It does not take a lot of alcohol to achieve a BAC of 0.1 percent – for a woman weighing about 150 pounds, it could be as little as 5 drinks in two hours.
Alcohol and Teen Drug Interactions
For teens on medication, alcohol can be incredibly dangerous. Its effects often compound with other sedatives, sometimes to a life-threatening degree. Some common drug interactions that teens should be aware of include:
- Alcohol and aspirin: stomach pain, potential internal bleeding or ulceration.
- Alcohol and anti-anxiety medication: extremely slowed breathing and heart rate.
- Alcohol and narcotics: extreme sedative effect.
- Alcohol and high blood pressure medication: extremely low blood pressure.
- Alcohol and antihistamines (allergy medication): drowsiness and low mood.
Furthermore, alcohol is an addictive drug. The more you drink, the higher the likelihood that you will have a harder time stopping drinking. Alcohol use disorder becomes more likely the younger someone is when they have their first drink.
Underage Alcohol Use and the Law
Teens need to be cognizant of the physical and mental effects of alcohol use, and the risk of drinking too much, especially over long periods of time. However, it’s also important not to forget the legal consequences.
While some states allow teens to consume small amounts of alcohol at home, in the presence of their parents, teenage drinking is generally prohibited even if it is tolerated. For their own safety, teens should try to avoid drinking if only to keep their record clean for adulthood.
Alcohol use is unfortunately still common among teens. It’s normal for teens to experiment and try things out – but there’s a difference between being curious about having a drink, and regular binge drinking or partying.
Parents often ask us about strategies to avoid or prevent underage drinking. In most cases, communication is key. There is a lot of merit in taking the time to demystify alcohol and explain both its short-term and long-term effects. The more kids know and understand about drinking, the less likely they are to want to find out about it themselves – especially if it turns out that getting drunk is not quite as fun as it’s chalked up to be.
We’re often asked about why teens are more susceptible to the effects of drugs than adults. The human brain is one reason – vulnerability to addiction and the addictive effects of alcohol have something to do with the development of certain portions of the brain. These portions remain mostly done, but not entirely matured until the mid-20s. Furthermore, there may be more internal incentives for teens to emulate the behavior of their peers and parents, which may put them at more risk for developing unhealthy habits, including excessive drinking.
Sometimes, we’re asked about what to do if a parent suspects that their teen is struggling with serious alcohol-related issues. Alcohol is addictive, and the rate at which an addiction might occur is different from teen to teen.
If your teen has been drinking frequently and is even hiding their drinking, then start by talking to them. If they admit that they need help – or if it’s clear that they can’t help themselves – it’s time to talk to a professional. Work with us here at Visions to begin your recovery journey through our teen alcoholism treatment programs.
Teens and parents need to be aware of the effects of alcohol on young people, especially when compared to adults. While alcohol dependency is always a worry with excessive alcohol consumption, teens may be more susceptible to alcohol’s negative effects, including cognitive damage and addiction. At Visions, we help teens with alcohol use and dual diagnosis through our inpatient and outpatient treatment programs.