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Alcohol and young people

Last updated: July 2024

Any amount of alcohol use comes with risks. The risks are even higher for young people. Alcohol is a leading cause of death and social issues in young people. It’s safest for young people to delay drinking for as long as possible, but if you do choose to drink, it’s important to learn about alcohol, it’s effects on your body, and how you can reduce your risks. The less you drink, the lower your risks.

How alcohol affects your health

There are many short- and long-term effects of drinking alcohol.

Acute (short-term) risks are the effects of drinking alcohol on a single occasion. They include:

  • Injury
  • Impulsive behaviour
  • Impaired attention, concentration and judgment
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Aggressiveness and violent behaviour
  • Slowed reaction time
  • Double or blurred vision
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Impaired memory or loss of memory

In some severe situations, it can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can result in:

  • Stupor (when you are not alert or responsive, and have difficulty getting up and moving around)
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma
  • Respiratory arrest (when you stop breathing or have trouble breathing)
  • Death

Other short-term effects on the body also include:

  • Flushed skin
  • Frequent urination
  • Slurred speech

Chronic (long-term) risks refer to the effects of drinking alcohol over the long-term. Risks include:

  • Damage to organs, including liver, brain, heart, stomach
  • Increased risk of cancer, including liver, breast, throat and stomach cancers
  • Increased risk of stroke and heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Reduced resistance to infection and communicable disease
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Decreased appetite
  • Malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies
  • Disturbed sleep patterns
  • Anxiety and depression, including suicidal depression
  • Hormonal irregularities and infertility

If you don’t want to drink

It’s normal not to drink. Many people choose not to drink. If you would prefer not to drink, there are things you can do to help you feel less pressured when others are drinking. You could try:

  • Letting your friends know ahead of time that you don’t want to drink
  • Drinking non-alcoholic drinks instead

Tips to reduce risks when drinking

If you choose to drink alcohol, there are ways you can reduce your risk of harm. Before drinking:

  • Set your limits. Decide on a maximum number of drinks you will have before you drink. Let your friends know your plans and stick to them
  • Plan to get home safely. This includes planning a safe ride home from someone who is not drinking (such as a designated driver or public transit) and making sure your phone is fully charged in case of emergencies. Talk to your friends about your plans and look out for each other
  • Eat. Drinking on an empty stomach can make the effects of alcohol more intense. It’s best to eat foods high in proteins and fats so that the effects of alcohol are more gradual

While drinking:

  • Pace yourself. Drinking too quickly can cause you to drink too much and lead to alcohol poisoning
  • Be careful about mixing alcohol with some non-alcohol drinks, like sweet and caffeinated drinks. These drinks can make it harder to know how much alcohol you’re consuming and how it is affecting you
  • Don’t leave your drink unattended and be careful when accepting drinks from others. This will help make sure that you know what time of alcohol you’re drinking and that no one has added any drugs to your drink
  • Avoid mixing alcohol with other drugs as it can interact in harmful ways
  • Drink non-alcoholic drinks and water

How do I know if my alcohol use is a problem?

Sometimes people use alcohol to help cope with stress and other challenges in life. Drinking alcohol might make you feel better in the short term, but it can cause other negative effects over time. You might be at greater risk of serious consequences from your drinking if:

  • You’re drinking in high-risk ways (for example drinking regularly or frequently, or consuming more than 2 standard drinks per occasion)
  • You have experienced negative impacts while drinking or as a result of your drinking such as injury or other health impacts, negative social interactions or relationship problems, or negative impacts on your school or work, or other areas of your life
  • You can’t seem to control how much you drink
  • You feel like it’s the only thing in your life that makes you happy
  • You’re struggling with mental health and are using it to cope

When a young person needs help

If you or someone you know is struggling:

  • Call the Alcohol and Drug Information Referral Service at 1-800-663-1441 (toll-free in B.C.) or 604-660-9382 (in Greater Vancouver)
  • Call the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre at 1-800-665-1822 (toll-free in B.C.) or 604-875-2084 (in Greater Vancouver) for information and support for young people and their families, including substance use and addictions
  • Check out Foundry BC for tools and resources on mental health and substance use for youth. You can also access services at 17 local Foundry centres or connecting virtually through their app