Information for College Students about Alcohol

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As a young adult, you've probably been pressured to use alcohol (and maybe other substances like cigarettes and illegal drugs) too many times to count—perhaps since middle or high school. Whether you've used alcohol in the past or not, the first 6 weeks of the first year of school—when you're trying to adjust to college life, fit in, and make friends—are a critical time for making important decisions about drinking.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 4 out of 5 college students drink alcohol. Maybe you're thinking, "Hmmm...I would've thought that number was higher—more like 5 out of 5!" After all, college is a time of change, exploration and independence. Your parents' role in your life weakens and the influence of your peers grows stronger. You're on your own for the first time and are free to make your own decisions—including whether to drink or not.

The statistics are clear, consistent, and hardly surprising: People tend to drink the heaviest in their late teens and early- to mid-20s. But here are the sobering facts:

    Just about every college student is adversely affected in some way by alcohol.
  • College drinking is a very serious problem in the United States and many other areas of the world.
  • College students are at higher risk for dangerous behaviors such as binge drinking and heavy drinking that can lead to tragic consequences. Each year in colleges and universities across the United States, alcohol contributes to more than 1,800 student deaths.

Risks associated with college drinking and problems related to alcohol on college campuses include the following:

  • Academic and disciplinary problems (missed classes and assignments, poor/failing grades, probation, loss of campus privileges, residence hall ban, expulsion, etc.)
  • Alcohol abuse and dependence (Studies show that more than 30 percent of college students abuse alcohol.)
  • Assaults (assault and battery, sexual abuse, date rape)
  • Depression and other mental health issues
  • Health problems (Alcohol affects the brain, liver, heart, stomach and other organs.)
  • Higher costs (due to alcohol education programs, property damages caused by vandalism, etc.)
  • Legal problems (associated with assaults, DUIs, vandalism, public drunkedness, etc.)
  • Serious injuries (car crashes caused by impaired drivers, falls, physical violence, etc.)
  • Suicide attempts (More than 1 percent of college students report attempting suicide because of alcohol or drugs.)
  • Unsafe sex (unprotected sex, inability to consent or not due to intoxication; may lead to STDs including HIV, unwanted pregnancy and lower self-esteem)

Effects of Alcohol

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Alcohol is the most widely-used recreational drug in the world—largely due to pleasant effects of intoxication, also called inebriation or drunkenness—which include exaggerated feelings of well-being and elation (euphoria) and lowered social inhibition. Intoxication occurs when alcohol is consumed at a rate faster than the body can metabolize it and builds up in the bloodstream.

However, alcohol affects many parts of the body and, especially when consumed in excess, some effects are unpleasant, harmful, progressive—and even dangerous. Additional effects of alcohol intoxication include:

  • Dehydration
  • Erratic or unusual behavior
  • Flushing of the face and neck
  • Impaired balance
  • Reddening of the eyes
  • Slurred speech
  • Uncoordinated movement (ataxia)
  • Vomiting

What Is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant. It affects breathing, heart rate and involuntary muscle responses, such as the gag reflex. High levels of blood alcohol, a condition called "acute alcohol poisoning," is a serious medical emergency that can lead to brain damage, coma and death. Alcohol poisoning usually results from drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short amount of time—binge drinking.

Common signs of alcohol poisoning include the following:

  • Coma, inability to be roused
  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Mental confusion
  • Pale or bluish skin color
  • Seizures
  • Slow or irregular breathing (fewer than eight breaths per minute or 10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Vomiting

If you suspect that someone has alcohol poisoning, call for help immediately. Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in the bloodstream can continue to rise after the person has stopped drinking—even after he or she has passed out. In rapid binge drinking, it's possible to ingest a fatal dose of alcohol before becoming unconscious.

Do not assume that the person will be fine by "sleeping it off." Alcohol is irritating to the stomach and it's common for a person to vomit after drinking too much. When this happens, there's a serious risk of choking and death, especially if the person is unconscious.

Don't be afraid to seek medical help if you suspect a friend, roommate or fellow party-goer may have alcohol poisoning. It can be a matter of life or death and it's better to be safe than to worry about embarrassment, anger or repercussions.

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College Drinking: Common Myths about Alcohol

Myth 1: Drinking alcohol isn’t that dangerous.
Fact: Each year in college students between the ages of 18 and 24, alcohol use is associated with the following:

  • 1 out of every 3 emergency room visits
  • Almost 600,000 injuries
  • About 700,000 assaults (97,000 sexual assaults)
  • More than 150,000 health problems related to drinking alcohol
  • More than 1,800 deaths

Myth 2: I can "handle" alcohol—I’' in control when I drink.
Fact: Alcohol is a drug that affects your central nervous system and changes how your brain functions. It affects your perception, thinking and coordination and impairs your judgment. Drinking reduces inhibition and increases aggressive, high-risk, thoughtless and/or violent behavior. Most people who drink alcohol report having done something while drinking that they later regret.

Myth 3: I can drive safely after a couple drinks.
Fact: Approximately half of all fatal car crashes in young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 involve alcohol. Don't drive and drive. And never get into a car with a driver who has been drinking. The higher your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and the younger you are, the higher the risk. If you are under the age of 21, it is illegal to drive with any amount of alcohol in your blood. Legal limits for drivers over the age of 21 vary, and remember, you may "feel fine" but still be impaired enough to cause a devastating crash.

Myth 4: I only drink on weekends, so I don't have a problem with alcohol.
Fact: Part of what puts college students at high risk for alcohol problems is the way they drink. Binge drinking (several drinks in a short amount of time) and heavy episodic drinking (several drinks at parties every Friday and Saturday night, for example)—so common in college—are dangerous and can lead to serious problems.

Myth 5: If necessary, I can sober up from the effects of alcohol quickly.
Fact: It takes time for your body to metabolize alcohol. How fast that happens depends on several factors, including your weight and how much alcohol is in your system. Generally, it takes about 3 hours for your body to metabolize 2 drinks. Drinking coffee, water or energy drinks; going for a walk; sleeping; or taking a cold shower will not speed up the process. Also, women process alcohol differently than men do. A woman who drinks the same amount as a man will be more intoxicated and more impaired—even if they both weigh about the same.

Myth 6: It's better if my body "gets used to" drinking.
Fact: If you need to drink more and more to feel the effects of the alcohol, you're developing a tolerance. Tolerance is a warning sign of alcohol dependence and a serious problem with drinking. Also, you can develop a problem with alcohol whether you drink "just beer" or drink hard liquor. The amount of alcohol in one regular 12-ounce beer is the same as in one shot of 80-proof liquor or one 5-ounce glass of wine.

How to Avoid Problems with Alcohol in College

If you’re in college, it’s important to get information about your school’s policies regarding alcohol on campus—just like you learned about its academic programs, course offerings, the location of your classrooms and the dining hall, and other aspects of the college or university. Remember, whether you drink alcohol or not, chances are it will affect you in some way while you're at school.

Participate in alcohol education programs designed to help reduce problems with alcohol on campus. Look into substance-free residence hall options and seek out alcohol-free activities and alcohol-free areas of campus. Talk with other students and campus leaders about increasing the availability of healthy alternatives to drinking.

College drinking is a serious, complex problem. If you have concerns about alcohol, seek guidance from your parents, your RA (resident adviser), your academic adviser or another faculty member, your school’s health/counseling services or student life/spiritual life department, your health care provider, or another trusted person.

Sources: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the NIH, College Drinking—Changing the Culture, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 27 Aug 2012

Last Modified: 26 Aug 2015