Alcohol. Wine, beer and spirits in glasses. © Australian Drug Foundation. Alcohol facts

What is alcohol?

What is a standard drink?

Effects of alcohol

Tolerance and dependence

Getting help

Alcohol use in Australia

What is alcohol?

Alcohol is a liquid produced by fermentation. Further processing produces alcoholic drinks such as beer, wine, cider and spirits.

Alcohol is a depressant drug. This means that it slows down the activity of the central nervous system and the messages going between the brain and the body. Depressant drugs do not necessarily make a person feel depressed.

Other names

Booze, grog, piss.

What does it look like?

Pure alcohol has no colour. It has a very strong taste that feels like a burning sensation. Alcoholic drinks vary in colour and taste depending on their ingredients and how they are made.

Why is it used?

In Australia, alcohol is used for social and cultural reasons. Many Australians drink alcohol with meals, to celebrate special occasions and to help them relax and to have fun.

What is a standard drink?

An Australian standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol (12.5ml of pure alcohol). By counting standard drinks you can keep track of how much you are drinking. Read more about standard drinks.

Effects of alcohol

The effects of any drug (including alcohol) vary from person to person. How alcohol affects a person depends on many things including their size, weight and health, also whether the person is used to it and whether other drugs are taken. The effects of any drug also depend on the amount taken.

After a few drinks—more relaxed, reduced concentration and slower reflexes.
A few more drinks—lowered inhibitions, more confidence, reduced coordination, slurred speech, intense mood (sad, happy, angry).
Still more drinks—confusion, blurred vision, poor muscle control.
More still—nausea, vomiting, sleep.

Even more—possibly coma or death.

There is no safe level of alcohol use. Use of alcohol or other drugs always carries some risk—even medications can produce unwanted side effects. It is important to be careful when taking any type of drug including alcohol.

Immediate effects

The effects of alcohol on the brain occur within five minutes of alcohol being drunk.

Low to moderate doses

Higher doses

Some of the effects that may be experienced after drinking alcohol include:

  • feeling relaxed
  • mild euphoria
  • reduced coordination and slower reflexes
  • lowered inhibitions
  • increased confidence
  • inappropriate sexual or violent behaviour
  • blurred vision
  • slurred speech
  • flushed appearance
  • headache
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • sleep.

When someone drinks heavily over a short period with the intention of becoming drunk, it is sometimes referred to as "binge drinking". Binge drinking is harmful because it results in immediate and severe drunkenness. As well as the health risks, it can lead people to take unnecessary risks and put themselves and others in danger.

Some common effects of binge drinking are:

  • headaches
  • tremors
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • coma
  • death.

Coming down


When someone drinks heavily, they may experience a range of symptoms the following day. These symptoms are called a hangover and may include:

  • headache
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • diarrhoea
  • reduced appetite
  • trembling
  • nausea
  • fatigue
  • increased heart rate and blood pressure
  • dehydration (dry mouth, extreme thirst, dry eyes)
  • trouble concentrating
  • anxiety
  • difficulty sleeping.

Sobering up

Sobering up takes time. The liver gets rid of about one standard drink an hour. Cold showers, exercise, black coffee, mints, fresh air or vomiting will not speed up the process. Someone who drinks a lot at night, may still be affected by alcohol the following day.

Long-term effects

Some of the long-term effects of drinking more than the recommended guidelines include:

  • brain injury
  • loss of memory
  • confusion
  • hallucinations
  • cancer
  • high blood pressure
  • irregular pulse
  • enlarged heart
  • greater chance of infections, including tuberculosis
  • inflamed lining
  • bleeding
  • ulcers
  • severe swelling and pain.
  • hepatitis
  • cirrhosis
  • liver cancer
  • inflammation causing pain
  • changes in red blood cells
  • weakness
  • loss of muscle tissue
  • tingling and loss of sensation in hands and feet
  • flushing
  • sweating
  • bruising
  • males: impotence, shrinking of testicles, damaged/reduced sperm
  • females: greater risk of gynaecological problems, damage to foetus if pregnant.

Other effects of alcohol use

Taking alcohol with other drugs

The effects of mixing alcohol with other drugs, including over-the-counter or prescribed medications, can be unpredictable and dangerous. Always read the instructions or seek advice from a health professional before mixing alcohol with medications.

  • Mixing alcohol with other depressant drugs such as benzodiazepines or GHB can cause a person’s breathing and heart rate to decrease to dangerous levels and increase the risk of overdose. Drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis together can increase the chances the unpleasant effects, including nausea, vomiting and feelings of panic, anxiety and paranoia.
  • Combining alcohol with stimulant drugs places the body under great stress and can mask some of the effects of alcohol. For example, if a person combines alcohol with energy drinks that contain caffeine (a stimulant) they will still be affected by the alcohol but may not feel as relaxed or sleepy. They may feel more confident, take more risks and increase the chances of experiencing alcohol-related harm such as drinking too much or being injured in a fight or accident.

Social problems

All areas of a person’s life can be affected by alcohol use.

  • Disagreements and frustration over alcohol use can cause family arguments and affect personal relationships.
  • Legal and health problems can also add to the strain on personal, financial and work relationships.

Men and women

At low levels of drinking there is little difference between men and women. However, at higher levels of drinking:

  • women are at a greater risk of developing an alcohol-related disease such as cancers, diabetes and obesity
  • men are at a greater risk of an alcohol-related injury such as a car accident, assault and violence.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Read about the effects of alcohol on pregnancy and breastfeeding.


Read about the effects of alcohol on driving.

Alcohol and the workplace

Read about the effects of alcohol in the workplace.

Tolerance and dependence

People who drink heavily on a regular basis may become dependent on alcohol. They may also develop a tolerance to it, which means they need to drink larger amounts of alcohol to get the same effect.

Dependence on alcohol can be physical, psychological, or both. People who are dependent on alcohol crave alcohol and find it very difficult to stop using it. People who are psychologically dependent on alcohol may find they feel an urge to use it when they are in specific surroundings or socialising with friends. Physical dependence occurs when a person’s body adapts to alcohol and gets used to functioning with it present.


If a dependent person stops drinking alcohol, they may have withdrawal symptoms because their body has to get used to functioning without alcohol. Withdrawal symptoms usually start about 4–12 hours after the last drink and can continue for about 4–5 days. These symptoms include sweating, tremors, nausea and anxiety.

Withdrawal from alcohol carries the risk of seizures or fits. Medical assistance may be required to help the person get through withdrawal safely.

Getting help


In Australia, there are many different types of treatments for drug problems. Some aim to help a person to stop using a drug, while others aim to reduce the risks and harm related to their drug use. Find out more about treatment.

What to do if you are concerned about someone’s alcohol use

If you are concerned about someone’s alcohol use, there is help available. Contact the alcohol and drug information service in your state or territory.

What to do in a crisis

Always call triple zero (000) if an overdose is known or suspected—and remember that paramedics are not obliged to involve the police.

If someone overdoses or has an adverse reaction while drinking alcohol, it is very important that they receive professional help as soon as possible. A quick response can save their life.

Visit the Better Health Channel to read St John Ambulance’s advice on drug overdose.

Alcohol use in Australia


Watch a short infographic video about alcohol, young people and preventing harm.

According to the National Drug Strategy Household Survey, in 2010, alcohol is the most widely used drug in Australia.

From 1996–2005, an estimated 32,696 Australians aged over 15 years and older died from alcohol-related injury and disease caused by risky/high risk drinking.

For more statistics about the use of alcohol in Australia, visit our Quick statistics page.

Alcohol and the law

There are laws that govern how alcohol may be used. These laws may differ, depending on the state, territory or local area. For example, in some areas local by-laws make it illegal to drink alcohol in public places such as beaches, parks and streets.

Read more about alcohol and Australian law.

For legal advice specific to your situation contact a legal aid service in your state or territory.

National drug policy

Australia’s national drug policy is based on harm minimisation. Strategies to minimise harm include encouraging people to avoid using a drug, through to helping people to reduce the risk of harm if they do use a drug. It aims to reduce all types of drug-related harm to both the individual and the community.

This information has been adapted from the pamphlet How Drugs Affect You: Alcohol, produced by the Australian Drug Foundation. For single copies of this pamphlet contact DrugInfo. Multiple copies are available from the ADF Bookshop.