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Risks of underage drinking

Alcohol use is not only an adult problem. Most American high school seniors have had an alcoholic drink within the past month. Drinking can lead to risky and dangerous behaviors.

Alcohol Use and Teenagers

Puberty and the teenage years are a time of change. Your child may have just started high school or just gotten a driver's license. They may have a sense of freedom they never had before.

Teenagers are curious. They want to explore and do things their own way. But pressure to fit in might make it hard to resist alcohol if it seems like everyone else is trying it.

The Best Time to Begin Talking

When a child begins drinking before age 15, they are much more likely to become a long-term drinker, or problem drinker. About 1 in 5 teens are considered problem drinkers. This means they:

  • Get drunk
  • Have accidents related to drinking
  • Get into trouble with the law, their families, friends, schools, or the people they date

The best time to begin talking with your teen about drugs and alcohol is now. Children as young as 9 years old may become curious about drinking and they may even try alcohol.

Alcohol can Cause Injury or Death

Drinking can lead to making decisions that cause harm. Alcohol use means any of the following are more likely to occur:

  • Car crashes
  • Falls, drowning, and other accidents
  • Suicide
  • Violence and homicide
  • Being a victim of violent crime

Risky Sexual Behavior

Alcohol use can lead to risky sexual behavior. This increases the risk for:

  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Unwanted pregnancy
  • Sexual assault or rape

Drinking and School

Over time, too much alcohol damages brain cells. This can lead to behavior problems and lasting damage to memory, thinking, and judgment. Teens who drink tend to do poorly in school and their behaviors may get them into trouble.

Health Problems Related to Alcohol

The effects of long-term alcohol use on the brain may be lifelong. Drinking also creates a higher risk for depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Drinking during puberty can also change hormones in the body. This can disrupt growth and puberty.

Too much alcohol at one time can cause serious injury or death from alcohol poisoning. This can occur with having as few as 4 drinks within 2 hours.

Get Help for Your Child

If you think your child is drinking but will not talk with you about it, get help. Your child's health care provider may be a good place to start. Other resources include:

Alternative Names

Risky drinking - teen; Alcohol - underage drinking; Problem underage drinking; Underage drinking - risks

References

American Psychiatric Association. Substance-related and addictive disorders. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing; 2013:481-590.

Kogan SM. The role of parents and families in preventing young adult alcohol use. J Adolesc Health. 2017;61(2):127-128. PMID: 28734320 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28734320.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Alcohol screening and brief intervention for youth: a practitioner's guide. pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Practitioner/YouthGuide/YouthGuide.pdf. Updated October 2015. Accessed May 15, 2018.

Review Date 4/15/2018

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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