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If you’ve ever watched a teen movie or TV show (and we’re sure you have), you might think drinking is the norm. So you might also be surprised to find out that less than one-third of high schoolers say they drink alcohol, according to a nationwide 2017 study. Of course, alcohol is still a part of our culture, so it’s good to know the facts, whether or not you choose to drink later on. We’ve asked the experts to answer some common alcohol questions below.

"Q" inside speech bubbleSome alcohol is stronger than other types, so what’s considered a drink?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), one drink is equal to:

  • Beer: 12 ounces (or one standard bottle) of beer (about 5% alcohol)
  • Plastic solo cup: 8–9 ounces of any beer that’s closer to 7% alcohol
  • Wine: 5 ounces (or one average-sized glass) of wine (at around 12% alcohol)
  • Shot: 1.5 ounces (a straight “shot” or mixed into a cocktail) of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol)

illustration of a beer mug

Beer

12 ounces (or one standard bottle)
of beer (about 5% alcohol)

illustration of a solo cup

Plastic solo cup

8–9 ounces of any beer that’s closer to 7% alcohol

illustration of a wine glassWine

5 ounces (or one average-sized glass) of wine (at around 12% alcohol)

illustration of shot glassShot

1.5 ounces (a straight “shot” or mixed into a cocktail) of 80-proof distilled spirits (40% alcohol)

"Q" inside speech bubble

What exactly is binge drinking?

Binge drinking is essentially heavy drinking or getting drunk. The amount of alcohol considered a “binge” is probably less than you think. It’s defined as consuming four or more alcoholic drinks in about a two-hour period for females, and five or more for males. However, because teens tend to be smaller than adults, some research suggests that for teen girls, a binge should be considered three or more drinks, and for teen boys, four or more drinks.

“During a binge, you drink at a level that gets your blood alcohol to 0.08 percent and higher,” says Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in Washington, DC. “That’s also the level for which it is illegal for adults to drive a car.” But drinking is illegal for anyone under the age of 21, and it’s also illegal for anyone under 21 to drive a car with any alcohol in their system.

"Q" inside speech bubble

How can you tell if someone is intoxicated?

People have different tolerances to alcohol (based on size, weight, and other factors), so for some, it can take a lot less than three to five drinks to get really drunk. Here are some signs of intoxication:

  • Slurred speech
  • Doing or saying things you normally wouldn’t (due to lowered inhibitions)
  • Loss of motor coordination (stumbling or falling over, feeling dizzy)
  • Slower reaction times
  • Sweating
  • Increased or slowed heart rate
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Glassy eyes or blurry vision
  • Loss of consciousness (or passing out)

Find out how alcohol affects your body and brain.

"Q" inside speech bubble

Why does it take more drinks for a guy to be considered binge drinking than it does for a girl?

“The reason for a [sex] specific threshold is because females generally tend to be smaller than males. They’ll reach a dangerous blood alcohol level with fewer drinks,” says Dr. White.

girl and guy standing next to each other with arms crossed

It’s not just about size. Women metabolize alcohol in a way that makes them get drunk faster than men—plus they’re more susceptible to liver disease from heavy drinking, according to a landmark study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Q" inside speech bubble

If 21 is the legal drinking age, what difference does a few years make?

Even adults who can legally drink run the risk of developing unhealthy drinking patterns or overdoing it (and many do). But there are lots of reasons to wait.

“The earlier a person starts to drink, the greater the chances of having an alcohol use disorder later in life. For example, according to national statistics, if someone begins to drink at age 13, there is a 47 percent chance of an alcohol use disorder later in life. If someone waits until age 21, that percent chance goes down to 10.”
—Dr. Marisa Silveri, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Neurodevelopmental Laboratory on Addictions and Mental Health at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts

“Also, frontal brain development continues into the mid-20s. Alcohol intoxication affects the function of this part of the brain, and regular, heavy alcohol use can have a negative impact on frontal lobe development.”
—Dr. Davis Smith, internist and director of health services at Westminster School in Connecticut

"Q" inside speech bubble

I’m at a party and my friend is really drunk. Can I handle this myself? I don’t want them to be angry if I call an adult for help.

This is a tricky situation with many different factors. Here are some expert tips to help you navigate.

Don’t be caught off guard.

“It’s always a good rule of thumb to have three adults you trust and can rely upon in hard times at your fingertips,” says Raychelle Lohmann, a counselor who works with teens in North Carolina. “Have their numbers saved in your phone in case you need them.”

close up of person holding phone

“Never leave your friend alone,”

says Lohmann. “Drunkenness can turn treacherous fast.” It’s important to stay with your friend until they’re safe at home because they’re in a vulnerable state.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2016 report, drivers under age 24 are responsible for 39 percent of fatal drunk driving accidents.

Never, ever let someone drive after they’ve been drinking.

“Hide their keys,” says Lohmann. Don’t let yourself be swayed if they say they’re sobering up by drinking water or eating. “Water can help with keeping fluid in their system, but it can’t sober them up.” Call one of your trusted adults, or even an Uber or taxi, to get both of you home safe.

Don’t try to confront your friend about the situation while they’re drunk.

You won’t be able to reason with them, and they may decide to do something riskier, such as walking off alone. “A couple of days after the event, I would talk to them about it, why it happened, and how they can avoid it in the future,” says Donna Cornett, an alcohol abuse counselor and author of Beat Binge Drinking.

“If your friend lies down, have them lie on their side,

because vomiting while lying on the back can lead to choking on vomit, and that can be deadly,” says Lohmann. In this situation, it’s a good idea to call an adult for help. “If your friend is losing consciousness, breathing irregularly, or experiencing seizures, call 911 immediately.”

Afraid of getting in trouble if you’ve been underage drinking?

“Many states have Good Samaritan policies in place,” says Dr. White. “These allow friends to call for help without risk of getting in trouble.” Of course, if someone is exhibiting the symptoms above, you absolutely need to make the call either way.

“Remember, less than one in five teens binge drink, so you are not alone if you choose not to,” says Dr. Margie Skeer, substance abuse prevention researcher and professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, Massachusetts.

*Names changed.

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Article sources

Donna Cornett, MA, director of the Drink/Link Moderate drinking program and author of Beat Binge Drinking, Santa Rosa, California.

Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, professional counselor and author of numerous psychological wellness books for teens, Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina.

Marisa M. Silveri, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Neurodevelopmental Laboratory on Addictions and Mental Health Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Margie Skeer, PhD, substance abuse prevention researcher and assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Health and Community Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts.

Davis Smith, MD, internist and director of health services at Westminster School, Connecticut.

Aaron White, PhD, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Washington, DC.

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