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Last Updated: Friday, 17 November 2006, 10:33 GMT
Alcohol risks and limits
image of a girl drinking
There are calls to make alcohol more expensive to deter youngsters
Excessive drinking by young people has seen a 20% rise in hospital admissions in England, a BBC inquiry has revealed.

The government says tackling binge drinking is a priority.

Experts explain why alcohol can be a health risk and what levels of consumption, if any, are safe.

Alcohol dangers

Alcohol is a drug that has the immediate effect of altering mood. Even though drinking makes people feel relaxed, happy and even euphoric, alcohol is a depressant. It switches off the part of the brain that controls judgement, leading to loss of inhibitions.

The more alcohol consumed, the greater the effect - speech becomes slurred, vision blurred, balance is lost and movements are clumsy.

People under the influence risk having accidents because of this.

Alcohol has been linked to a wide range of illnesses - an increased risk certain cancers, including mouth cancer, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal complications, such as gastritis, ulcers, and liver disease.

Excessive alcohol consumption can also have detrimental social and psychological consequences. People can lose their jobs and loved ones.

Alcohol is implicated in up to 40,000 deaths per year in England and Wales, and is directly responsible for 5,000 deaths.

Why can it be particularly risky for children and adolescents to drink?

The brain goes through big changes and growth during childhood and adolescence, and alcohol can seriously damage long- and short-term growth processes.

Damage from alcohol at this time can be long-term and irreversible. Experts believe short-term or moderate drinking impairs learning and memory far more in youth than adults.

Also, children need only drink much less than adults to suffer the same negative effects.

What are the recommended limits?

Experts advise men drink no more than 21 units of alcohol per week and no more than four units in any one day.

Women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and no more than three units in any one day.

For pregnant women, experts do not know whether there is any safe level. They believe one or two drinks of alcohol (one or two units), once or twice a week, is unlikely to harm the unborn baby.

Many women decide to abstain from alcohol when they are pregnant.

The reason for the different cut off levels for men and women is because, as a rule, men weigh more than women, and, pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men.

Therefore, a woman's brain and other organs are exposed to more alcohol and to more of the toxic by-products that result when the body breaks down and eliminates alcohol.

What is a unit of alcohol?

One unit of alcohol is 10ml (1cl) by volume, or 8g by weight, of pure alcohol.

This is equivalent to a small 25ml measure of spirits, a 125ml glass of 9% wine or half a pint of ordinary strength beer.

Are there any benefits to drinking?

Alcohol consumed in moderation is thought to be beneficial in reducing the risk of coronary heart disease.

09 Aug 00 |  A-B


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