The rules around alcohol and the law are quite confusing. In the UK, you must be 18 years old to buy alcohol. However, if you are 16 and in a restaurant with your parents or carers, you are allowed a small alcoholic drink with a meal, but this is at the restaurant's discretion. If the restaurant owner says you are not allowed to consume alcohol then you can't argue with that. In the home, it is illegal to give a child alcohol if they are under 5 years old. A parent can give their child a sip of alcohol, perhaps on a special occasion, but if this becomes a regular thing, the child may become the subject of a child protection procedure.

So why is the legal age 18? There are two main reasons. Firstly, when you become 18, you are legally an adult. It is expected that you are old enough to be sensible and make good decisions, especially concerning alcohol. But how many people do you know that have woken up on their 18th birthday and become sensible and mature?! The second reason, and perhaps the most important reason, is because at the age of 18, your major organs in your body are more or less fully developed and can handle small amounts of alcohol every now and again. If you regularly exceed your daily guidelines, you put yourself at risk of damage to your body.

Alcohol is a physically addictive drug which means that, over time, your body can become dependent on alcohol. If you are dependent on alcohol and stop drinking it, your body can physically withdraw. Some of the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal are shaking, sweating, nausea, vomiting, headaches and feelings of anxiety. If someone has been heavily dependent on alcohol for a long period of time, it can be very dangerous, and in some cases fatal, to stop drinking suddenly.

Alcohol is a depressant drug which means that it slows down your central nervous system which includes your heart rate and your respiratory rate. Alcohol slows down your reactions and affects your judgement and decision-making, meaning that you are more likely to take risks and do things that you usually wouldn't do when you're sober.

When you consume alcohol, it enters your blood stream and goes to every part of your body which is why alcohol is one of the only drugs that affects almost every part of your body in one way or another. Alcohol can cause short term effects and long term effects:

Short term effects:

  • Risk of accidents or injury
  • Aggression and anti-social behaviour
  • More vulnerable to assault either physically or sexually
  • Unsafe sex putting you at risk of STIs and unplanned pregnancies
  • Losing personal possessions
  • At risk of dependence if you regularly consume more than your recommended daily guidelines
  • At 12 or more units, you are at serious risk of alcohol poisoning

Long term effects:

  • Increases blood pressure and cholesterol - can lead to heart attack and stroke
  • Depression
  • Fertility problems and impotence
  • Weakens immune system
  • Weakens bones
  • Cancers in many parts of the body including head and neck, liver, heart, mouth, breast, stomach and bowel
  • Pancreatitis
  • Liver disease including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)

What is alcohol poisoning?

If you consume a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time, you put yourself at risk developing alcohol poisoning. Alcohol, a depressant drug, slows down your breathing and heart rate and when you have a high amount of alcohol in your bloodstream, these critical bodily functions slow down so much that the person could fall into a coma or die. At this level of alcohol consumption, the gag reflex does not work as effectively, meaning that if someone collapses and is sick, their gag reflex won't remove the vomit from their throat and they could choke.

Symptoms of alcohol poisoning are:

  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting
  • Slow breathing
  • Cold and clammy skin
  • Pale or blueish skin
  • Unconsciousness

Information taken from and

Why Do People Drink Alcohol?

There are many different reasons why someone might use alcohol. These can include:

  • For fun
  • To celebrate
  • To cope with mental health issues such as depression
  • To fit in
  • To act 'cool'
  • Peer pressure
  • Pain relief or self-medicating
  • To cope with a bad time in their life
  • Stress
  • To be sociable
  • To forget things
  • They enjoy it
  • Religious reasons
  • Boredom

There can be positive reasons why someone might drink alcohol, such as to celebrate or because they enjoy it, but alcohol use can sometimes be a consequence of something negative, whether it's to cope with a mental health issue or to ease emotional pain. Excessive alcohol use carries short term and long term risks but if someone is using alcohol to cope with something negative in their life, it is important to access appropriate support to tackle any issues that they might be facing. Further information can be found on the 'useful contacts' section of this website.

Effects of Alcohol on Relationships

If someone has been drinking alcohol, it can have an immediate effect on their brain and consequently, their decision making, judgement and mood. Alcohol can heighten emotions; it can amplify the mood that you are already in or it can change the way you are feeling completely. Mood can change with the more alcohol you drink, for example, after one or two drinks someone might be chatty and happy but after several more they might become emotional or distressed. Some people may become aggressive and violent towards other people, including people they care for. There is also an increased risk of domestic abuse when someone has been drinking alcohol.

When it comes to relationships, alcohol can play a part in forming new relationships or causing disruption in others. Consuming a large amount of alcohol affects judgement and lowers inhibitions making you feel more confident. Some people may feel more comfortable in talking to people that they are attracted to, some might feel so confident that they kiss them or even have sex with them. Alcohol affects a person's ability to consent to sex too. Someone who is under the influence of alcohol may decide to have sex with someone, whereas usually they wouldn't have done, but they may not be in a fit state to consent to sex, leaving them more vulnerable to sexual assault.

Alcohol can change a person's behaviour either temporarily until the alcohol wears off, or in the long term when someone becomes dependant on alcohol. This could cause friction in many relationships such as family, friends and partners. Alcohol dependence in particular can cause strain in relationships as the addiction takes over the lives of the user and their loved ones. Priority may lie with alcohol and other responsibilities might seem less important such as working or taking care of the family. Alcohol dependence could lead to loss of employment, the inability to afford to run a home, family breakdown, loss of social relationships, as well as the health consequences associated with long term alcohol use.

Units: Knowing Your Limits

Units represent the amount of alcohol in our drinks. It takes a healthy adult one hour to process one unit of alcohol. The more units in your drink, the longer it will take for your body to process the alcohol and remove it from your body.

If you regularly consume large amounts of alcohol, you put your body at risk of serious damage. The government recommend 'lower risk guidelines' that adults (Over 18s) can consume with minimal risk of causing harm. Previously, guidelines have been based on a daily limit and given different recommendations for men and women. New guidelines released in February 2016 give the same recommendations for men and women, recommending that no more than 14 units of alcohol be consumed in a week. Adults should spread this allowance over the course of the week with some non-drinking days, and should not save all the units up for one night of drinking. You can find more information about the new guidelines here:

Here are some examples of the amount of units in drinks:

One 25ml shot of spirits (40%) - 1 unit
One pint of standard strength lager (4%) - 2.3 units
One pint of standard strength cider (4.5%) - 2.6 units
One large glass of wine (11%) - 2.8 units
One 275ml alcopop (4%) - 1.1 units

Most drinks will have information about the units on the back of the bottle or can. However, not all of these calculations have been found to be correct! You can work out the amount of units in your drink using this simple calculation:

Abv (usually a %) x amount in ml / 1000

It is worth remembering that the measures of the drinks above are measures that you will find in a pub, club, bar or restaurant. For example, one shot of spirits is 25ml. However, if someone is drinking at home and pouring their own drinks, their measures might be a lot larger than pub measures and therefore will contain a larger amount of units.

Safer Night Out

At the Matthew Project, we know that young people may consume alcohol during a night out. Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, affects your judgement and can put you in a vulnerable position. There are things you can do before and during your night out to help yourself to have a safer night out.

Before You Go Out

  • Charge your phone.
  • Ensure that you have enough credit to make a phone call if you need help.
  • If you don't have credit on your phone, take some change so that you can use a phone box.
  • Take the money that you need. You could leave your bank card at home to prevent yourself from taking out more money than you would have wanted to, however, a bank card could be useful in an emergency situation so it depends on how you feel about doing this.
  • Arrange your lift home - either book a taxi or get a friend or family member to pick you up.
  • Tell someone (eg parents) 'roughly' where you will be and what time you expect to come back. You don't necessarily have to say in that place or come back at that time but at least if you are later than you said, someone might give you a call to make sure you're ok. This is helpful if you run into difficulty!
  • If you are getting a taxi home, keep your taxi money separate so you don't accidentally spend it (some taxi companies will allow you to pay for your ride home when you are on your journey out)
  • Take a condom with you - just in case!
  • Eat before you go out (carbs are good) - alcohol is an irritant to the stomach so you are more likely to be sick if you haven't eaten anything

During Your Night Out

  • Drink non-alcoholic 'spacer' drinks in between alcoholic drinks - this will give your liver a chance to process the alcohol that's already in your system
  • Don't leave your drink unattended
  • If you're in a group, look out for each other - you don't have to stay by each other's sides all night but keep an eye out for your friends, especially if some have been drinking more than others and might be more vulnerable
  • Use a condom if you have sex to protect again STIs and unplanned pregnancy
  • Avoid rivers and drops
  • Don't mix alcohol with other drugs
  • If you're worried about a friend, call 999

What is drink spiking?

Drink spiking is when someone will put either drugs or more alcohol in someone's alcoholic drink without their consent. The reasons why could be to make the person more vulnerable for theft, sexual assault or even just for fun. Drink spiking is very serious though and carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

In 2014, an ITV crime survey found that one in ten people had been spiked but not all cases had resulted in assault. It is difficult to find the true statistics for drink spiking however, as many people will not report it through embarrassment or shame. Some people are worried that others will think badly of them, especially if the spiking resulted in sexual assault.

Are women more likely to be spiked than men?

No. Men are just as likely to have their drink spiked.

How can you tell if your drink has been spiked?

There are a variety of different signs that your drink has been spiked, often depending on what your drink has been spiked with. Some signs can be similar to those of excessive drinking which is why some people, and their friends around them, may not realise that they have been spiked. Some of the signs are:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Visual disturbances
  • Loss of coordination
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Blackouts or amnesia (memory loss)
  • Hallucinations
  • Falling unconscious