Alcohol 101

Why do people drink?

Brown students were asked this question as part of a national college alcohol study in 2001. Among the students who drink, here are the most common responses:

  • To have a good time with friends -- 91%

  • To celebrate -- 90%

  • To relax or relieve tension -- 74%

  • Because they like the taste -- 69%

Not surprisingly, no one wants to drink because they like throwing up, getting arrested or winding up in the emergency room. What people enjoy about drinking is what happens within the first few drinks. So if you choose to drink, know what you're getting into and know what risks are involved. Think about how many times things happen that you DON'T like and then ask yourself what you can do to make safer choices. Click here for ways to cut down

What are the short-term risks of drinking?

When you're drinking, one of the first things to go is your judgment. So, celebrating or having fun with friends can quickly turn into embarrassing yourself, getting hurt, throwing up or nursing a hangover. These statistics show the very real risks of drinking in college:

  • 70% of college students admit to engaging in unplanned sexual activity primarily as a result of drinking or to having sex they wouldn't have had if they had been sober.

  • Alcohol is involved in over 90% of all campus rapes.

  • Alcohol makes some drinkers violent and 50% of non-academic discipline cases at Brown typically involve alcohol.

  • At least 1 out of 5 college students abandons safer sex practices when they're drunk, even if they do protect themselves when they're sober.

  • Heavy drinkers consistently have lower grades.

  • One night of heavy drinking can impair your ability to think abstractly and grasp difficult concepts for a month. 

Is it dangerous to mix alcohol and other drugs?

Alcohol can be dangerous when mixed with other recreational drugs or medications. Below are some of the reactions that might take place after mixing alcohol with different types of drugs:

Using alcohol with GHB, rohypnol, ketamine, barbiturates, tranquilizers or sleeping pills will multiply the sedative effects of both drugs, which can slow down your central nervous system enough to cause loss of consciousness, a coma or death. Sedatives like GHB and rohypnol have been used as date rape drugs because of this dangerous combination.

Using alcohol with cannabis can decrease motor control and mental concentration and greatly impair your ability to drive. Because cannabis suppresses the gag reflex, you may not be able to throw up alcohol when your body needs to.

Using alcohol with narcotics such as heroin, codeine or Darvon slows down the central nervous system and can cause your breathing to stop, a coma and even death.

Prescription drugs
More than 150 medications interact harmfully with alcohol. Alcohol's effects are heightened by medicines that depress the central nervous system, such as sleeping pills, antihistamines, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and some painkillers. In addition, medicines for certain disorders, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, can have harmful interactions with alcohol. Using alcohol with a prescribed drug or an over-the-counter drug may effect your liver's ability to metabolize the medication and can decrease the medication's effectiveness. The combination of drugs can also multiply the effects of the alcohol and the medication and may cause liver damage. If you are a Brown student, you can call the Pharmacy (401.863-7882) to ask about using alcohol with any prescribed drug or over-the-counter drugs. 

What is alcohol poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning occurs when someone drinks to the point that their blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches dangerous levels and causes the central nervous system to slow down. Breathing and heart rate become slower and slower, and the person can lose consciousness, slip into a coma and die. If someone is unconscious and begins vomiting, they could choke to death on their own vomit. The severe dehydration of alcohol poisoning can cause seizures or permanent brain damage.

Alcohol poisoning is most likely to happen when someone drinks a large amount of alcohol very quickly. Because the liver can only process roughly 1 drink per hour, a person's BAC can continue to rise for several hours.

Warning signs of alcohol poisoning:

  • Person cannot be roused (unconscious).

  • Vomiting.

  • Seizures.

  • Slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute).

  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths).

  • Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, or paleness.

If you find a friend that has any of these symptoms, CALL EMS immediately at 401.863-4111. Click here for more information on calling EMS. 

What is tolerance?

Tolerance refers to a reduction in the effects of alcohol (or other drugs) over the course of repeated use. So, someone developing tolerance to alcohol must drink more to feel the same effect that had been achieved with fewer drinks.

Tolerance can be a warning sign for alcoholism. If a person can drink large amounts of alcohol and not feel the effects, they are at risk for becoming dependent on alcohol. Most people will look at the BAC chart and find that they feel the effects that are described at that blood alcohol concentration. If you don't feel those effects until much higher amounts of alcohol, you are developing tolerance.

The body's organs do not develop tolerance. They are damaged by the alcohol no matter how well a person can function. Tolerance does not protect you from lethal amounts of alcohol. Even if someone feels that he can "hold his liquor," he is still at risk for alcohol poisoning.

Tolerance is a complex physiological process, and the research literature defines several different types of tolerance, including acute tolerance, environment-dependent tolerance and learned tolerance. For an in-depth discussion, go to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism and search the site for research on tolerance. 

How much do you spend on alcohol?

A few dollars here, another few there -- have you ever kept track of how much you spend on a night out drinking? Use this Alcohol Cost Calculator to calculate the amount you're spending. It will give you a monthly total and a yearly total. Think about what you could buy with all the money you spent on drinks. 

How many calories are in a drink?

Alcohol supplies calories but few or no nutrients. When you drink alcohol, your body actually metabolizes alcohol as if it were a fat. So, your body will treat those alcohol calories in a can of beer or a shot of vodka like a couple of teaspoons of butter. Use this Alcohol Calorie Calculator to find the serving size and average calorie amount of your favorite drinks. You can then compute your calorie intake.

It's important not to skip dinner or other meals because you're worried about the calories in drinks. You need the nutrients in food to help you have the energy you need, to store memories and to replenish your muscles. Drinking on an empty stomach will make you feel much more intoxicated. One of the common reasons Brown students get EMS'd is not eating enough beforehand. 

When is someone considered too drunk to drive?

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence the leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. is driving while intoxicated. After drinking many people think they are fine to drive, but it is important to remember that alcohol impairs your judgment. This means that after a few drinks you can't judge whether you are sober enough to drive!

In Rhode Island, if you are over 21 the legal BAC limit for driving is .08. Even though driving with a BAC of .05 is technically legal, your risk of having an accident increases by 100%. If you are under 21 the BAC limit is .02 -- that's less than 1 drink for anyone under 200 lbs.

DWI penalties in Rhode Island include fines, license suspension, community service, alcohol education classes and/or treatment. 

Are there long-term risks to drinking?

There is some evidence that moderate drinking (1 drink a day for women, 2 drinks a day for men) may be good for the cardio-vascular system. However, any positive effects disappear at higher levels of drinking. Chronic or heavy drinkers are more likely to experience:

  • Appetite loss, vitamin deficiencies, inflammation of the stomach, vulnerability to infection and skin problems.

  • Damage to the liver, pancreas, central nervous system, heart and blood vessels.

  • Permanent and irreversible memory loss.

  • Development of cirrhosis of the liver and cancers of the lung, throat and mouth.

  • Death from heart and liver diseases, pneumonia, acute alcohol poisoning, accidents and suicide.

It is estimated that 300,000 of today's college students will eventually die of alcohol-related causes, such as cirrhosis of the liver, various cancers, heart disease and drunk driving accidents. 

How do you know if someone is an alcoholic?

An alcoholic lacks control over their drinking and will continue to drink even though they know that it's causing problems in their lives. Alcoholics generally develop psychological dependence first and crave alcohol but don't experience unpleasant physical symptoms. Physical dependence develops with continued heavy use and is characterized by the alcoholic feeling profound anxiety, tremors, sleep disturbances, hallucinations and seizures within hours after they stop drinking.

Many people are not alcoholics but experience problems related to drinking. That is, their drinking patterns frequently cause negative consequences, like fights, blackouts, car accidents or unprotected sex. For either situation, there is help at Brown and in Providence. Recognizing a problem provides a more comprehensive look at this topic. 

Related Links

The Blood Alcohol Educator
Learn how gender, body weight, food and how fast you drink can affect your blood alcohol concentration. This is an interactive tool that shows you how much alcohol is in different drinks and how your BAC would compare to male and female friends.

e-CHUG is a free, anonymous assessment tool that provides individualized feedback on the role alcohol is playing in your life. You can also see how your use compares with other college students. If you are a Brown student and would like to talk to someone about your use, you can call Health Promotion at 401.863-2794 for a confidential appointment.

College Drinking: Changing the Culture
Click on the section for students to find out about myths and facts, take an interactive tour of the flow of alcohol through the body or learn about alcohol poisoning. You can use the Calorie Counter to learn about the number of calories in different drinks and you can send an eCard to someone whose drinking worries you.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
NIAAA publishes research on many aspects of alcohol, answers frequently asked questions and provides pamphlets and brochures. The research papers and reports can be downloaded.

Online Drug Screening
This confidential and anonymous survey gives you feedback about the likely risks of your alcohol and drug use.

National Institute of Drug Abuse
NIDA provides research reports, answers commonly-asked questions and gives related links.

MEDLINEplus Health Information
This site will give you links to drug facts, prevention and screening, research, treatment and statistics. Information available in Spanish.

DanceSafe is a harm-reduction web site centered on drugs found in nightclubs and raves. The site offers drug information, a risk assessment, ecstasy testing kits and e-news.

National Institutes of Health Club Drugs Site
Provides trends and statistics, research reports and health information on club drugs.

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