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Teenage Alcohol Use

Alcohol is the most widely abused drug in the United States. On the average, teenage drinking begins very early, often during the preteen years. This happens partly because alcohol is easily available. Many teens first try alcohol by getting it from their own homes.

Many parents believe that alcohol is not really a problem, and many feel relieved when they find out their teen is "only drinking alcohol" and not taking other drugs. This is dangerous thinking. Alcohol use in the teen years is a serious concern. Even occasional alcohol use by a teen is a sign that he or she is at increased risk for future alcohol and drug problems. Also, a teen who drinks alcohol before the age of 14 has an increased risk for developing an alcohol use problem.1

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Alcohol is a sedative, and it reduces anxiety. In a person who is not dependent on alcohol, moderate amounts cause sleepiness, good feelings (euphoria), decreased inhibition, and impaired coordination. Alcohol decreases the quality of sleep, especially if a person is using it often to help him or her fall asleep. Drinking larger amounts of alcohol causes poor judgment, mood swings, slurred speech, and an unsteady gait. Binge drinking (having 5 or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion) or heavy use of alcohol can lead to unconsciousness, coma, and death.

Teens use alcohol because they believe it relaxes them, makes them feel less stressed, and helps them feel more confident. There are many reasons that teens should not drink. Alcohol can:

  • Cause serious health problems. Alcohol affects all organs of the body but has its most serious effects on the liver. It can cause problems with brain development in teens. Alcohol use during pregnancy can lead to fetal alcohol syndrome.
  • Interfere with learning how to handle stressful situations. Some teens who drink alcohol regularly may not learn how to handle stressful situations without drinking alcohol. Some are more prone to serious depression and suicide.
  • Cause dependence in teens faster than in adults. A teen can quickly become both physically and psychologically dependent upon alcohol. About 4.6 million teens between the ages of 14 and 17 have problems related to drinking alcohol.1

Alcohol also can:

  • Cause problems with judgment. Teens who use drugs and alcohol are more likely to have unprotected sex. Unsafe sex can result in pregnancy or infection with a sexually transmitted disease, such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
  • Decrease how quickly a person reacts to potential dangers or situations around them (such as while driving). Car accidents because of driving while under the influences of alcohol are the leading cause of deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds. Each year about 8,000 teen deaths and 45,000 injuries are related to car accidents where alcohol was involved.1
  • Prevent or delay development. Alcohol abuse can prevent a teen from developing skills needed for success in relationships and life.
  • Lead to use and abuse of other drugs. Alcohol is considered a gateway drug because teens who drink alcohol are more likely to use other drugs. Alcohol is often used to enhance the effects of other drugs. If alcohol and cocaine are used together, it produces a potentially deadly compound (cocaethylene).

Alcohol can be detected in a urine drug screen for up to 12 hours after drinking. Breath alcohol tests detect the level of alcohol in the blood during the time of the test.

Signs of use

Signs of alcohol use or abuse may include:

  • Alcoholic beverages missing from the refrigerator or cabinet.
  • Mood changes, including hostility and anger.
  • Changes in performance at work or school, or having trouble with the law.
  • Changes in appearance, sleeping patterns, and eating patterns.
  • Slurred speech or a lack of coordination, if recently used.

Citations

  1. Anderson MM, Neinstein LS (2008). Alcohol. In LS Neinstein, et al., eds., Adolescent Health Care: A Practical Guide, 5th ed., pp. 878-887. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Peter Monti, PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Last Revised August 19, 2010

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 19, 2010
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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