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How does alcohol affect teens?

Is it safe for teens to drink alcohol?

You may feel tempted to drink when it seems harmless, all your friends are doing it or you’re feeling stressed. But if you’re under age 21, drinking alcohol isn’t safe.

What are the risks of drinking alcohol as a teenager?

While alcohol can make a person feel relaxed and happy at first, it can also cause harmful side effects. Teens who drink are more like to experience:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Alcohol use disorder later in life
  • Disruption of normal growth or sexual development
  • Disruption of normal brain development that can have life-long effects
  • Fights
  • Hangovers (not feeling well the day after you drink excessively)
  • Higher risk of suicide
  • Illnesses
  • Injuries like falls or burns
  • Legal problems, like being arrested for driving while impaired
  • Memory problems
  • Other forms of substance abuse
  • Physical violence
  • School problems, like absences and declining grades
  • Sexual violence
  • Social problems
  • Unprotected, unwanted or unplanned sexual activity
  • Vehicle accidents

The dangers of binge drinking

These problems are more common in teens who binge drink. Binge drinking means drinking excessively to the point where your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08 g/dl or higher.

That’s usually four or more drinks in a two-hour period for a person born with female reproductive organs and five or more drinks in a two-hour window for a person born with male reproductive organs.

How alcohol affects the teenage brain

In the short term, drinking alcohol can:

  • Make it harder for you to make good decisions.
  • Increase your risk of injury.
  • Make you less aware of unsafe or inappropriate behavior.
  • Make you less aware of danger.

Long-term, research suggests that drinking during your teen years can disrupt normal brain development, which can:

  • Negatively affect your ability to learn and process information.
  • Increase your risk of having alcohol use disorder later in life.

Signs of alcohol overdose

Consuming a lot of alcohol can also lead to overdose and death. Drinking too much can cause a person to pass out, vomit and choke, or stop breathing. The risk of overdose is higher in teens who take pain medications or sedative-hypnotic medications like Benadryl, Xanax or Valium.

Warning signs of alcohol overdose include:

  • Bluish or clammy skin
  • Confusion
  • Extremely low body temperature
  • Lack of gag reflex, which can lead to choking
  • Paleness
  • Slow or irregular breathing (less than eight breaths per minute; 10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Slow heart rate
  • Trouble staying conscious or waking up
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting

If someone has these symptoms, it’s crucial to call 911 for help right away. Coffee, cold showers and walking won’t help. They could even worsen the overdose.

Signs of a drinking problem

If you rely on alcohol to control your mood or emotions or feel like you need it to feel normal, you may be experiencing alcoholism or another mental health disorder.

Talk to an adult you trust if you think you may have a problem with alcohol.

Need more info? Ask an Expert.

CDC: Underage Drinking
CDC: Binge Drinking
National Institute on Drug Abuse: Alcohol
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Hangovers

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