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Alcoholic drinks are popular in most countries of the world as many people
find the immediate effects on the mind pleasurable. In order to assess how
much a person is drinking it is useful to use the units system. A unit of alcohol
is approximately 8 grams, or 10 mls of pure alcohol. A litre of wine at 10%
alcohol by volume would therefore contain 100 mls of ethanol (i.e. ethyl alcohol
which is the form of alcohol in alcoholic drinks) representing 10 units. One
unit is roughly the amount of alcohol in a single whisky, a small glass of sherry,
a small glass of table wine, a quarter of a pint of strong lager or half a pint of
beer. What is important for health is the total amount consumed; alcohol in
beer is just as dangerous as alcohol in spirits. The advisable safe weekly maximum
for men is probably 21 units and 14 for women; however some say it is 28 units
for men and 21 for women. This should be spread over three or more occasions,
with alcohol free days included in the week. Women can tolerate less because
they are usually smaller than men and have a relatively greater proportion of
adipose tissue. Regular heavy drinking is more harmful than occasional binges.
Even in small doses alcohol inhibits the function of the mind and muscular
coordination. Consumption of about 4 units will result in a blood alcohol
level of about 80 mg per 100 mls of blood and will reduce inhibitions and
promote relaxation. Increasing to about 8 units, most drinkers slur speech a
little and become clumsy. Emotional reactions vary a lot but often become
highly exaggerated. Increased doses may cause agression, staggering, loss of balance,
nausea and finally loss of consciousness with associated risk of inhalation of
vomit causing choking and suffocation.
As physical and mental function is impaired, accidents of all forms are a
common risk. Acute alcohol poisoning, a potentially fatal condition, is possible
with a large intake over a short period of time. Young people are prone to this
as they may not have learned how much alcohol their bodies can handle. Like
any drug overdose, this is a tragic way for a young person to die. A severe
'hangover' can occur after a single episode of drinking. Unwanted pregnancies
and sexually transmitted disease are possible consequences of disinhibition.
Prolonged 'heavy' drinking is associated with many pathological conditions,
the level of risk increasing with consumption. Men drinking over 5 units per
day have a slightly increased risk of developing alcohol related conditions. In
men drinking 10 units a day (or 5 units for women) the risk is much increased.
However, if a man drinks 20 units per day (10 units for women) for a period of
time there is a high risk of developing alcohol related disease.
In chronic drinking, psychological and physical dependence may occur.
Sudden withdrawal of alcohol in continuous drinkers results in delirium
tremens. This is characterised by anxiety and tension, tremor of the hands,
insomnia, seizures, hallucinations, tachycardia, hypotension, vomiting, diarrhoea
and fever. Long term alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer of the