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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin

Key facts

Alcohol is one of the most widely used drugs in the world. It is used and accepted in many societies, but excessive levels of alcohol consumption result in both short-term and long-term poor health.

Alcohol slows down the central nervous system and the brain, affecting concentration and coordination. It also slows down how quickly a person reacts to unexpected situations. Alcohol is absorbed very quickly into the bloodstream, affecting organs and cells throughout the body. The most immediate and noticeable effects are on the brain.

People who drink heavily place themselves at an increased risk of chronic ill health and early death. Long-term heavy drinking can have serious social and financial effects.

Why do people drink alcohol?

There are many reasons people choose to drink alcohol including to:

What are the effects of alcohol?

Alcohol use has many short-term and long-term health effects.

Short-term physical effects of alcohol use include problems with movement, coordination and judgment.

Short-term physical effects of high levels of alcohol use include confusion, blurred vision and poor muscle control, followed by a hangover the following day. Hangovers usually include headaches, dehydration, nausea, vomiting and/or tremors.

Long-term effects of high levels of alcohol use include:

Chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes are the chronic diseases strongly associated with high levels of alcohol use.

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it can also permanently harm the unborn baby. For more information see the section below on alcohol and pregnancy.

What factors influence alcohol absorption?

People may experience different effects of alcohol to varying degrees, and at different points in time.

The speed of the absorption of alcohol depends on:

There are ways to encourage low-risk drinking:

When is alcohol use a problem?

There are ways to enjoy alcohol responsibly. For some people, however, alcohol use can become a problem. The following list of impacts may help identify if someone has an alcohol problem:

Alcohol guidelines

The Australian alcohol guidelines, developed by the National Health and Medical Research Council, aim to reduce the risks of alcohol-related injury and disease. As already mentioned, alcohol affects different people in different ways, so there is no amount of alcohol that is safe for everyone, but these guidelines recommend upper limits of ‘standard drinks’:

The guidelines also state that:

What is a ‘standard drink’?

A standard drink contains 10 grams of alcohol. Different alcoholic drinks have different percentages of alcohol, so the amount of beverage in a standard drink varies. For example:

  • 285mls of heavy (full strength) beer contains one standard drink
  • 100mls of red wine contains one standard drink
  • one nip of many spirits (such as whisky) contains one standard drink.

Note: These are only an approximate number of standard drinks. The label on the beverage container shows how many standard drinks it contains.

The Australian alcohol guidelines recommend that children under 15 years of age should not drink alcohol and that young people aged between 15 and 17 years should delay starting to drink for as long as possible. The safest option for pregnant and breastfeeding women is not to drink alcohol.

The Australian alcohol guidelines is included in the Healthy Lifestyle Workers Resource Pack.

Alcohol and pregnancy

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, it can permanently harm the unborn baby.

There is no known safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and there is no period during the pregnancy when drinking alcohol is safe. That is why the Australian alcohol guidelines recommend that pregnant women do not drink alcohol.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are a range of disorders that are caused by being exposed to alcohol in the womb. These disorders are associated with a range of physical, behavioural and memory problems, some of which may not become apparent until a child reaches primary school.

Being exposed to alcohol in the womb can mean that a person may have permanent disabilities, may have mental health issues, may not do well at school, may find it hard to get or keep a job, and may have a high level of contact with the criminal justice system.

More information is available at

Last updated: 10 July 2012
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