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Learn about alcohol and the associated health risks. Knowing the short- and long-term effects can help you make decisions about using alcohol.

Key points

  • Alcohol can impair decision making, which can put someone at risk of harm (e.g., unwanted sexual encounters or self-harm).
  • The most common pattern of alcohol use in teens is ‘binge’ drinking, which means to have five or more drinks at one time.
  • Using large amounts of alcohol (especially if alcohol is consumed quickly) can result in decreased consciousness, affect breathing and even result in death.
  • Using alcohol with other substances can put you at greater risk of serious health effects.
  • Alcohol can affect how other medications (over the counter and prescription) are processed in the body, which can result in too low or too high levels of the medication.

About half of teens aged 15–19 report drinking alcohol in the past year. The average age of first use is 13.4 years, and the average age of binge drinking (five or more drinks at one time) for the first time is 14.5 years.

How are teens using alcohol?

Some teens decide that they are not going to try alcohol. Others are curious and may try alcohol at home with a family member or when they are with friends. Some will use it more regularly on weekends with friends, and a small percentage of teens may get to a point where they are drinking daily. The health effects of alcohol increase with both the amount taken and how often alcohol is used.

What is known about the effects of alcohol use in teens?

Short-term effects and risks

There are several effects that alcohol has on the brain and on decision-making.

Effects on the brain

Alcohol slows down how the brain works and can cause a decrease in your level of alertness. With large amounts, there can also be a slowing of breathing, and in some cases, coma and death.

If someone ‘passes out’ because of drinking too much, they are often not able to protect their airway. This means that if they vomit, they can ‘aspirate’ (breathe) this into their lungs, which can cause severe breathing difficulties.

Drinking a lot of alcohol can also result in what is known as ‘blackouts’. A blackout is short-term memory loss for events that happen while someone is intoxicated.

In people with epilepsy or a history of seizures, alcohol can increase the likelihood of having a seizure.

Impulsive behaviour and decision-making

Alcohol use can impair decision making and lead to behaviours that a person might not choose to do if they were not under the influence of alcohol. This can include impulsive behaviour that can result in injury, self-harm or suicidal thoughts or attempts. For example, driving a motor vehicle (including a boat) while under the influence of alcohol can result in injury and/or death. Alcohol can also affect decisions about engaging in sexual activity, as well as how people interpret another person’s consent or lack of consent to engage in a sexual encounter.

Interactions between alcohol and other substances

Alcohol interacts with other drugs. This includes:

  • other substances that someone might be using, such as cannabis
  • prescribed medications and over-the-counter medication

Depending on the type of substance, alcohol can increase or decrease the effects of the other drug or medication. When you pick up a prescription, check the bottle to see if there is an alert about using alcohol with the medication, or ask the pharmacist about any potential effects. You can also read about potential interactions between alcohol and other substances, including medications, at

Longer-term effects and risks

If someone is using alcohol daily, they are likely to develop a dependence. A person who is dependent on alcohol will need to drink more to get the same effect and can experience withdrawal if they stop using alcohol suddenly. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include tremors and seizures. If you or someone you know is drinking daily, it is important to seek medical help in cutting back or stopping.

Using alcohol regularly can result in:

  • difficulties with learning and memory
  • worsening mental health (e.g., depression, anxiety)
  • other problems (e.g., doing poorly in school, family problems)

Some people can also develop liver problems because of alcohol use alone, or in combination with other health conditions.

Using alcohol while driving

Driving while intoxicated with alcohol is against the law in Canada. Alcohol reduces alertness and co-ordination. People who drive after using alcohol can’t react as quickly when they need to. Vision can be blurred or doubled, and depth perception can be affected, making it difficult to know how close or far away other cars, objects or pedestrians are.

Last updated: April 1st 2023