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Alcohol as a Drug: What You Should Know

Alcohol as a Drug: What You Should Know

A common question that people have regarding drinking might be, "Is alcohol considered a drug?" Learn the answer here.

Alcohol use is common. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, data show that within a given year, 69.5% of U.S. adults consume alcohol, and 54.9% drink within the course of a month. While alcohol consumption is common, that doesn’t mean that alcohol use is always harmless. For some people, alcohol misuse can become a problem, leading to addiction and the need for alcohol rehab. Given that alcohol can lead to the development of an addiction, some people ask, “Is alcohol considered a drug?” Learn the answer, as well as information about medication assisted treatment for alcohol use, below. 

What Is Alcohol?

Before diving into what makes alcohol a drug, it’s helpful to understand what alcohol is. Most alcoholic beverages contain ethanol and water, and some sweet liquors may contain a large amount of sugar as well. Most of the alcohol in common beverages contains ethanol, which is produced as a result of the fermentation of carbohydrates with yeast. 

As experts from Harvard University explain, ethanol is the active ingredient in alcohol. It’s a simple molecule that has mood-altering effects, as well as impacts on concentration and coordination. 

What Does Alcohol Do To The Brain

Part of what makes alcohol a drug is the fact that it exerts specific effects on the brain. Over the short-term, alcohol creates negative consequences in areas of the brain responsible for speech, judgment, coordination, and memory. When consumed in large quantities, alcohol’s effects on the brain can lead to unsteady gait, slurred speech, and difficulty with decision-making. 

Also related to alcohol’s effects on the brain is the effect it has on the central nervous system. Alcohol elevates levels of a brain chemical called GABA, which slows activity in the nervous system. This can lead to feelings of relaxation or calm when under the influence of alcohol. 

Alcohol Content Of Various Alcoholic Beverages 

When considering the answer to, “Is alcohol considered a drug?” it is helpful to understand that different types of alcoholic beverages have varying contents of alcohol. The chart below depicts the percentage of ethanol in various types of alcoholic beverages: 

Alcohol Content Of Various Alcoholic Beverages

Is Alcohol Considered A Drug?

A “drug” is generally defined as any substance that has an effect on the body and influences cognition, senses, or motor functioning. Based upon this definition, alcohol is classified as a drug. Alcohol acts on the body by influencing GABA within the nervous system, which in turn affects thinking, sensations, and motor functioning. 

So, what is alcohol classified as? Based upon its effects on GABA, alcohol is labeled as a central nervous system depressant. This means that it slows activity in the nervous system. 

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Effects Of Alcohol On The Body

Like any other drug, alcohol has numerous effects on the body. Some of these effects show up with short-term use, whereas others are the result of ongoing, long-term alcohol misuse. 

Short-Term Effects

Over the short-term, alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system lead to slurred speech, loss of coordination, impaired judgment, and even confusion or stupor. Some people may experience blackouts with heavy alcohol consumption. 

With short-term use, heavy drinking can have various negative effects on the body, including increased risk of injury and greater likelihood of sexually transmitted infections from unprotected sex. Heavy alcohol consumption can also lead to alcohol poisoning, which is a medical emergency. 

Long-Term Effects 

Over the long-term, alcohol has negative effects on the brain, as well as other systems of the body. Long-term alcohol misuse can damage areas of the brain associated with planning, problem-solving, and impulse control. 

Other long-term effects of alcohol use include increased risk of the following health conditions: 

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart Disease
  • Stroke
  • Liver disease
  • Various types of cancer
  • Weakened immune system 
  • Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety 
  • The development of an alcohol use disorder, which is the clinical term for an alcohol addiction 

When Can Drinking Alcohol Qualify As An Addiction?

The answer to, “Is alcohol considered a drug?” is yes, based upon the fact that alcohol exerts effects on the body that result in changes in thinking, senses, and motor functioning. Like other drugs, alcohol misuse can also cause serious damage to the body and lead to the development of an addiction.

When someone becomes addicted to alcohol, the clinical term for the addiction is an alcohol use disorder.  Drinking qualifies as an alcohol use disorder when people continue to drink, even when they experience significant consequences from drinking. To be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder, a person must meet criteria for the condition. 

Some indicators of an alcohol use disorder include drinking despite ongoing relationship problems resulting from alcohol use, giving up hobbies or other activities because of drinking, being unable to fulfill obligations at work due to alcohol use, spending a significant amount of time drinking, and being unable to cut back on alcohol use. 

A physician or addiction professional such as a psychologist or clinical social worker can diagnose an alcohol use disorder. 

Risks Of Excessive Drinking

Beyond brain damage, increased risk of injury, and higher risk of chronic health conditions, drinking excessively increases the risk that someone will develop an alcohol use disorder. So, what constitutes excessive drinking? Generally, excessive drinking is defined as more than four drinks in a day or 14 in a week for a man, or more than three drinks in a day or 7 in a week for a woman. 

Drinking beyond these levels increases the risk of developing an alcohol use disorder . Binge drinking, defined as more than four drinks at a time for a man or more than three at a time for a woman, can also increase the risk of an alcohol use disorder, especially if binge drinking is frequent. 

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Other FAQs

The answers to the following questions are also helpful if you’re looking for the answer to, “Is alcohol considered a drug?” 

Why Is Alcohol Classified As A Drug?

Alcohol meets the definition of what is considered a drug, because it influences cognition, sensory functioning, and motor coordination. Alcohol exerts effects on the nervous system, which changes thinking and behavior.

Is Alcohol A Depressant Drug?

Alcohol is a depressant drug, meaning that it acts as a central nervous system depressant. Alcohol enhances the activity of a brain chemical called GABA, which slows activity in the nervous system. 

Is Alcohol Chemically Addictive?

Alcohol has the potential to be addictive, especially with long-term, heavy use. People who have a family history of alcohol misuse, co-occurring mental health conditions, or who began drinking before the age of 15 are at increased risk of alcohol addiction.

Recover From Alcohol Misuse With Confidant Health 

If you’re looking for alcohol rehab services, Confidant Health offers a solution. We offer online medication assisted treatment for alcohol use, so you can begin recovering from home. Download our app today, available on both the App Store and the Google Play Store, to get started with medication assisted treatment.

This article has been medically reviewed by
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Erin Hillers
Nurse Practitioner

Erin is a Nurse Practitioner with 8 years of experience in midwifery and women's health. She has spent the past 5 years specializing in the treatment of opioid and alcohol use disorders.

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