Alcohol

All drug use has risks. This page is for information only and does not constitute or replace medical advice. If you have medical concerns about your drug use, please speak to a medical professional.
wine glass and bottle

Alcohol is one of the most commonly used psychoactive drugs in the UK. The alcohol found in alcoholic drinks is ethanol.

Other names

booze, drink, bevvy

Appearance

Liquid

Drugs Wheel Category

Depressants

Legality

Legal restrictions.

It is illegal to sell alcohol to anyone who is under 18 or to buy alcohol for anyone who is under 18. For more information visit www.alcohol-focus-scotland.org.uk

How it’s taken

Swallowed

Dose

UK guidelines state that drinking any amount of alcohol carries a risk and advises people not to exceed more than 14 units of alcohol per week (about 6 pints of beer or 6 medium glasses of wine). It is also recommended to spread these units over several days and have a minimum of two alcohol-free days per week. 

General information on dosing.

Effects

Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant which means it slows your heart rate and breathing. People taking it may feel more relaxed, outgoing, talkative and experience euphoria, improved mood and increased confidence. Other effects include blackouts (temporary loss of memory) as well as feeling drowsy, confused and nauseous. It can also reduce your inhibitions and affect judgement. Like other drugs, it can lead to dependency if used regularly and/or to excess.  

There are lots of reasons for a hangover, including a combination of dehydration and alcohol withdrawal. ‘The Fear’ is real – alcohol can affect levels of dopamine and serotonin (brain chemicals involved in mood, sleep and appetite) and can leave you feeling anxious as the effects wear off. This can last hours or days after drinking. Alcohol is one of the biggest contributors to mental illness in Scotland. 

Alcohol can affect your sleeping pattern and quality of sleep leaving you feeling unrested, further negatively impacting your mental health and overall wellbeing.  

Alcohol can affect your hormones; your oestrogen and testosterone levels at the time of drinking can also affect how drunk you feel. People may feel the effects of alcohol differently at certain points in their menstrual cycle – it may take less alcohol to feel the intended effects. Your body size can also determine how you feel the effects of alcohol. 

There are numerous long-term impacts of frequent and/or long-term use of alcohol including liver damage, damage to the gut, heart disease, cancer, problems with memory and dementia.

Harm reduction

If you choose to take alcohol then the following steps can help to reduce harm.
  • Plan ahead – make sure you have money and options to get home safely.
  • Anyone who has stopped drinking for a period of time will have reduced tolerance and may require less alcohol to achieve the intended effect – dose low, go slow. 
  • Make sure you have a good meal and are well hydrated before drinking. Also drink water in between alcoholic drinks to avoid dehydration – this can also reduce the negative effects the next day. 
  • Avoid mixing different drugs including alcohol and medicines as this can cause dangerous, unintended or unpredictable effects. Take time to research your medication or health condition. 
  • Not at the pub? It can be difficult to judge how much a unit of alcohol is. Use a measuring cup or spirit measure to accurately dose alcohol.
  • Driving after drinking more than 0.5 units of alcohol is illegal – always ensure you are sober and well rested before driving. Scotland has a drink drive limit of 22 micrograms of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath (the ‘breath limit’) but other countries vary. Ensure you research the drink driving legislation of the country you are in. 
  • It can take 1 hour for your body to process 1 unit of alcohol but be aware that alcohol leaves your system more slowly while sleeping.  
  • Alcohol can cause nausea and vomiting – people should sleep on their side to avoid choking on vomit in their sleep. 
  • If you experience vomiting this could reduce the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill – use alternative methods to avoid unintended pregnancy. 
  • Think about safe sex and consent. 
  • Look after your pals and seek medical help as soon as possible if needed. Be honest about what has been taken. 
  • If someone is dependent on alcohol they should not stop drinking suddenly as sudden alcohol withdrawal can be fatal – try a gradual (tapered) reduction in drinking. Your GP, local drug service or international service can help with this. 

Detection time

People taking alcohol have reported the following detection time, but this cannot be taken as a recommendation; detection of any drug will depend on purity, regularity of use, other medications or drugs you have taken, your body and how it’s taken.
  • It takes around 1 hour for your body to process one unit of alcohol - longer if you are sleeping. It can be detected in urine for 3-5 days or blood for 10-12 hours.