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Alcohol and Teenagers



Worried that you or your friend might have a drinking problem? If you answer yes to one or more of these warning signs, there may be an alcohol problem that needs to be addressed.

  • Getting drunk on a regular basis
  • Lying about how much alcohol he or she is using
  • Believing that alcohol is necessary to have fun
  • Having frequent hangovers
  • Feeling run-down, depressed, or even suicidal
  • Experiencing “blackouts” – forgetting what occurred while drinking
  • Having problems at school or getting in trouble with the law
  • Avoiding friends in order to get drunk
  • Giving up activities he or she used to do – sports, homework, spending time with friends who don't drink
  • Having to drink more to get drunk
  • Constantly talking about drinking
  • Pressuring others to drink
  • Taking risks such as driving under the influence of alcohol or taking sexual risks
  • Missing work or school – or exhibiting poor performance at work or school – because of drinking

If any of these warnings sound uncomfortably familiar, please
seek help for yourself or your friend. For referrals, talk to your school nurse or other trusted healthcare professional. You may also call the following hotlines: the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) at 1-800-662-HELP (662-4357) or the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Crisis Line at 1-800-234-0420. For information, call the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information at 1-800-729-6686.


Not everyone is drinking. Research shows that 70% of people ages 12-20 haven’t had a drink in the past month.

Alcohol comes in many forms, but one thing doesn't change: If you are under 21, it’s illegal for you to purchase or possess alcohol.

  • Wine coolers may look like juice, but they have as much alcohol as a 12-ounce beer does.
  • One 12-ounce beer has as much alcohol as a 1.5-ounce shot of whiskey or a 5-ounce glass of wine.
  • “Alcopops” – sweet alcoholic malt beverages – are more popular among underage drinkers than among adults. These sweet drinks don’t taste like beer or liquor but can contain more alcohol than beer does. Teens are three times as likely to know about these products and nearly twice as likely to have tried them as adults are.

If Your Friend Has a Drinking Problem

First, it’s not your fault. Do not blame yourself for your friend’s drinking problem. Ultimately, it’s up to your friend to change his behavior. You can’t do that for him. (We’re using the male pronoun, but girls have drinking problems, too.)

Second, bravo! You're a good friend for recognizing the problem and trying to help.

Third, don’t take on this burden alone. There are many adults who can help you figure out the best approach. Talk to a trusted family member, teacher, SADD advisor, coach, school counselor, student assistance professional, family doctor, school nurse, or faith leader.

Discuss your concern when your friend isn’t high. Your friend may get angry with you, tell you to mind your own business, or may deny he has a problem. That’s common. And one conversation rarely does the trick. It may take several discussions before your friend understands how serious you are about this drinking problem. Don’t give up if he doesn’t immediately stop drinking. Here are some tips to help you with this tough conversation.

  • Start by telling your friend how much he means to you and that you are worried about him.
  • Give examples of when his drinking has caused problems or affected you or others.
  • Let him know that you want to help, and tell him what you will do for him.

Drinking too much isn’t just illegal; it can be deadly.

Alcohol poisoning* occurs when the blood alcohol level (the percentage of alcohol circulating in the bloodstream) rises to a danger point, causing a person to lose consciousness and slip into a coma. In the worst cases, the drinker dies.

Here are some signs of alcohol poisoning.

  • Not responding to being talked to or shouted at
  • Not responding to being pinched, poked, or prodded
  • Vomiting while sleeping or passed out and not waking up after vomiting
  • Inability to stand up or remain standing unless aided by others
  • Failure to wake up despite repeated attempts by others (?)
  • Slow breathing (fewer than six breaths per minute or more than 10 seconds between breaths)
  • Bluish or purplish skin or skin that appears flushed
  • Clammy skin or skin that feels cool to the touch
  • Irregular pulse rate or a pulse slower than 40 beats per minute
  • Irregular heart rhythm with the heart beating unusually quickly or unusually slowly

Here’s what to do if your friend shows signs of alcohol poisoning.

  • Call 911 for medical assistance immediately.
  • Don’t leave your friend alone.
  • Place your friend on his side to reduce the risk of choking on vomit.
  • If your friend’s breathing becomes slower than six breaths per minute, perform rescue breathing if you know how to do so. This can save your friend’s life.
  • If you no longer feel a pulse, perform CPR if you are certified by the American Red Cross or the American Heart Association.
  • Wait with your friend until help arrives. Explain to the paramedics what you know about how much alcohol your friend has consumed. Even though you may be afraid of getting your friend in trouble, remember that this is a matter of life and death.

Here’s what NOT to do if you think your friend has alcohol poisoning.

  • Don’t give your friend a cup of coffee or put him in the shower.
  • Don’t let your friend go swimming or engage in other physical activities.
  • Don’t let your friend drive or ride with someone else who has been drinking.

* A Note on Terminology:
Alcohol poisoning – Some people say that referring to an alcohol overdose as alcohol poisoning is inaccurate and misleading. These people say that “poisoning” implies that a third party intervened to “poison” the individual when, really, an alcohol overdose is usually the choice of the individual.


Alcohol affects your body and brain. It can impair your judgment.

  • According to a report from the American Medical Association, your teenage brain is going through enormous changes and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes. Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible. In addition, short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults. Adolescents need only drink half as much to suffer the same negative effects.”1
  • Alcohol is carried via the bloodstream throughout your body, is absorbed very quickly (as quickly as 5-10 minutes), and can stay in the body for several hours.
  • Alcohol can damage every organ in your body. It can increase your risk for disease, including cancer.
  • Drinking alcohol leads to a loss of coordination, poor judgment, slowed reflexes, distorted vision, memory lapses, and even blackouts.
  • Alcohol depresses your central nervous system, lowers your inhibitions, and impairs your judgment. Drinking can lead to risky behaviors, including having unprotected sex, which may expose you to HIV/AIDS, other sexually transmitted diseases, or unwanted pregnancy.
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to coma or even death.
  • Alcoholic drinks are empty calories that have no nutritional value. The average 12-ounce bottle of beer has 151 calories but zero nutrients. A low-calorie beer has 110 empty calories.
  • While alcohol can make you feel relaxed, uninhibited, and buzzed, when it leaves your system, you feel sleepy – which can lead you to drink more to maintain the buzz.

Drinking alcohol can have enormous negative consequences.

  • One drink can make you fail a breath test.
  • Drinking can result in not getting your driver's license on time or having your license taken away.
  • You can lose your job. 
  • You can lose your college scholarship or even your invitation of admission.
  • You can receive a hefty fine or have your car taken away permanently.

You don’t have to be the one who’s drinking to get hurt.

Just hanging out with people who are drinking leads to increased risk of being seriously injured, involved in a car crash, or affected by violence. At a minimum, you may have to deal with people who are sick, out of control, or unable to take care of themselves.

Women are affected more by alcohol than men are because women have less water in their bodies (water dilutes alcohol) and more adipose tissue (fat), which is not easily penetrated by alcohol, keeping the alcohol in the bloodstream.

  • A woman’s menstrual cycle will affect her rate of alcohol absorption. Women will experience the highest rate of blood alcohol concentration when premenstrual.
  • Body weight affects how a person reacts to alcohol. Heavier people are less affected by alcohol because they have more blood and water in their bodies to dilute the alcohol. Women generally weigh less than men do.
  • Women have lower levels of alcohol dehydrogenase (AHD, the enzyme responsible for beginning alcohol metabolism) in their stomachs, which results in alcohol staying in their systems longer.
  • Women are more likely to become addicted or to have liver damage sooner than men are, even if women drink less alcohol or drink for a shorter period of time than men do.
  • Women are more likely than men to develop high blood pressure at even moderate levels of drinking.
  • The average age of a child’s first drink is 12.
  • Nearly 20% of young people between the ages of 12 and 20 are “binge drinkers.”*
  • Although young people are less likely than adults to drive after drinking, their risk of a crash is substantially higher when they do drive. It's true even for low and moderate blood alcohol concentrations, possibly because many teens are inexperienced drivers.
  • One fourth of 16- to 20-year-old drivers who were fatally injured in crashes had high blood alcohol concentrations.
  • Among younger teens, there is no gender gap in drinking: male and female ninth graders are just as likely to drink (40% versus 41%) and to binge drink (22% versus 20%).
  • Individuals who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become dependent on alcohol than are those who begin drinking at age 21.
  • The prevalence of lifetime alcohol abuse is greatest for those who begin drinking at age 14.
  • One third of sixth and ninth graders obtain alcohol from their own homes.
  • Children cite other people’s homes as the most common setting
    for drinking.
  • Four out of every five students have consumed alcohol (more than a few sips) by the end of high school.
  • Two thirds of twelfth graders report having been drunk.

* A Note on Terminology
Binge drinking – People in the substance abuse prevention field disagree about whether to use “binge drinking” or another term such as “high-risk drinking.” People who support use of a definition of binge drinking (four drinks in a row for women and five for men) argue that a specific amount is necessary to measure the phenomenon of heavy, sustained, problem drinking. Those concerned about the use of the term binge drinking say that this definition is not consistent with the common understanding of a binge or a “bender” that may last days. They also say that setting a specific number of drinks does not take into account the drinker’s body mass and the time period over which the drinks are consumed. These are important points, but because use of the term binge drinking has become so common in discussions of teen and college drinking, we have continued to use it. Students should recognize that binge drinking” or high-risk drinking or “drinking to intoxication” are all labels for a pattern of heavy, sustained drinking that is extremely dangerous.

1 American Medical Association. “Fact Sheet: Effects of Alcohol on Brains of Adolescents.”

Click here to view recent statistics on special occasions and driving under the influence -- information resulting from a recent SADD/Liberty Mutual Teen Driving Study.