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Talk to Your Teen: Health Consequences of Alcohol Abuse

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

As the parent of a teenager, you’ve got a lot on your mind. You want the best for your kids, so you pay monitor their grades, their friends, their extracurricular activities, and their social life – especially once they hit high school. Unless you live under a rock, you’re concerned about the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation. You read articles about big pharmaceutical companies flooding rural communities with millions of pills – numbers drastically disproportionate to local populations or any realistic measure of actual need. In Washington, D.C., there’s great sound and fury about opioids. The federal government establishes commissions and launches investigations. The commissions make recommendations, and the country waits for change. The latest news is that opioid manufacturers are cutting their sales teams and scaling back their approach: no more reps will visit doctors pushing pills like Oxycontin.

That’s progress in the right direction. However, with all the attention the media and politicians currently place on opioid abuse, it’s easy to lose sight of another problem in the United States: the prevalence of alcohol use among teenagers. Alcohol use and abuse doesn’t get all the flashy headlines that opioid abuse gets, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away or it’s no longer a dangerous threat to the health and well-being of your teenager. It’s easy to push concerns about alcohol to the back burner: people rarely overdose on alcohol or turn to petty crime to finance their alcohol habit, because it’s difficult to drink enough alcohol at one time to kill yourself, and alcohol is relatively inexpensive and very easy to get.

A Country of Social Drinking

There’s another reason we’re easily distracted by the newest bright shiny object – opioids – and forget alcohol is still there and can still cause problems: it’s part of our national identity. Don’t misunderstand us: we’re not downplaying the immediacy of the opioid crisis. It’s a big deal and needs to be addressed right away.

We’re reminding you, as parents, not to lose sight of the dangers of underage drinking. We’re reminding you that alcohol advertising is so prevalent we’re virtually immune to its presence, and people without alcohol problems tend to forget most social functions in the U.S. either revolve around or include alcohol consumption. From backyard barbecues to black-tie receptions to holiday parties, drinking is something Americans are good at and love to do. Our kids watch TV and they see the beer commercials. Our kids go to parties with us and see us toast with champagne, nurse the latest microbrew out of Oregon, or order another gin and tonic to grease the social wheels. No matter how much we tell them not to drink, every parent knows kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say.

That’s why it should be no surprise that the latest statistics on adolescent and underage alcohol use show teens are still drinking. Not only are they still drinking, they’re doing it at an alarming rate. Get ready – we’re about to hit you with a string of data. Don’t get bogged down or quit reading – if numbers make your head spin, skip down to the next heading in bold. If you’re up to the task, read on: these are important numbers to know.

The Facts on Teenage Drinking

The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2015 NSDUH) reports the following figures for alcohol use among adolescents and young adults:

General Alcohol Use
  • 33.1 percent of 15-year-olds say they’ve had at least one drink in their lives.
  • 22.7 percent of adolescents age 12 to 17 say they’ve had at least one drink in the past year – over 5.5 million teenagers.
  • 9.6 percent of adolescents age 12 to 17 percent say they’ve had at least one drink in the past month – almost 2.5 million teenagers
Binge Drinking

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of consumption that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) up to 0.08 g/dl. This happens when you consume:

  • 4 drinks in about 2 hours (women)
  • 5 drinks in about 2 hours (men)

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as:

  • Drinking 5 or more alcoholic drinks on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days

The 2015 NSDUH indicates that around 13.4 percent of individuals age 12 to 20 reported binge drinking in the past month – that’s roughly 5.1 million people. By gender, that’s around 2.6 million boys and 2.5 million girls.

Heavy Alcohol Use

SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as:

  • Drinking 5 or more drinks on the same occasion on each of 5 or more days in the past 30 days

The 2015 NSDUH indicates that around 3.3 percent of individuals age 12 to 20 reported heavy alcohol use in the past month – that’s roughly 1.3 million people. By gender, that comes to just over ¾ of a million boys and just under ½ a million girls.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
  • Estimates indicate over ½ a million individuals age 12 to 17 have an AUD. By gender, that’s roughly 300,000 boys and 325,000 girls.

The 2015 NSDUH indicates that Only about 5.2 percent of adolescents with an AUD received appropriate treatment.

Now that you’ve been gently reminded – with scary numbers – about the rates of underage drinking, the next thing to think about is what you should do with this information. Granted – it’s unlikely your teenager is never going to have a drink. But how can you keep them from escalating to binge drinking, heavy drinking, or developing an Alcohol Use Disorder?

We think it’s a good idea to remind them of the long-term health risks associated with excessive drinking.

The Effects of Alcohol on The Major Organs

Most people, teenagers included, know alcohol wreaks havoc on the liver, but that’s not the only organ that suffers under chronic alcohol use. Let’s take a look at the other organs negatively impacted by long-term alcohol use, starting at the top. We recommend reading this list and sharing these facts with your teenager, so that if they do choose to drink, they know exactly what the consequences are.

The Brain

Excessive alcohol use can damage brain structure and function. New brain imaging technology shows significant decrease in brain tissue as a result of long-term, excessive alcohol use. Chronic over-consumption of alcohol can also lead to Wernicke’s-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS), which is caused by vitamin B-1 deficiency. WKS is ugly: effects may include alcoholic dementia, short-term memory loss, the inability to learn new information, cognitive impairment, eye problems, poor physical coordination, and difficulty walking.

The Heart

Most people have read or heard a glass or two of wine a day is good for the cardiovascular system. What most people haven’t heard is that heavy alcohol consumption can damage the heart. Excessive drinking can cause cardiomyopathy, a heart disease with symptoms like dizziness, fainting, shortness of breath, swelling of the lower extremities, fatigue, abnormal pulse, and cough accompanied by a frothy, pink discharge. These symptoms often go unnoticed until it’s too late, and heart failure is imminent.

The Liver

Alcohol-related liver disease comes in three primary forms:

1. Alcoholic Cirrhosis.

Cirrhosis means scarring. Alcoholic cirrhosis means severe scarring and liver damage. Cirrhosis is not reversible, but further damage can be prevented if it’s caught early enough. Untreated cirrhosis causes permanent damage which can only be improved by a liver transplant. Over 30,000 people a year die from alcohol related liver disease, and about one-third of liver transplants are alcohol related.

2. Alcoholic Hepatitis.

This causes an increase in liver fat, inflammation, and can lead to mild cirrhosis. People suffering from alcoholic hepatitis often experience nausea, vomiting, poor appetite, stomach pain, fever, and jaundice. Nearly 35% of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic hepatitis. Mild cases can be reversed when identified soon enough, while extreme cases may escalate quickly and lead to severe complications, including death.

3. Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease.

This causes a buildup of fat in liver tissue, which impedes typical, healthy liver function. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all. Alcoholic fatty liver disease is the least damaging of the liver diseases caused by excessive alcohol consumption, and can be reversed.

Alcohol and Cancer

Liver disease is a common and well-known health risk associated with heavy drinking, but it’s not the only serious illness related to excessive alcohol use. The American Cancer Society (ACS) links the following forms of cancer to alcohol:

  • Mouth
  • Throat
  • Voice Box
  • Esophagus
  • Colon
  • Rectum
  • Breast

The message from the ACS is simple: excessive drinking increases your likelihood of getting cancer.

Our message to you is also simple: if you suspect your teenager is experimenting with alcohol, sit them down and lay out these facts in a calm, rational manner. This isn’t about frightening them with graphic images like the blackened lung of a two-pack-a-day smoker or a gross looking picture of a severely scarred liver. It’s about respecting their intelligence and presenting irrefutable scientific data in order to expand their knowledge base. It’s about giving them information about the consequences of alcohol use and advising them to factor that information into their decisions about drinking. Not just in the short run, but over the course of their lives. They need this information before they go to college, when the statistics on binge and heavy drinking jump astronomically. They also need it before they turn 21, when only their budget limits their access to alcohol.

Knowledge Counts

We want you to make sure your kids know that chronic excessive drinking can cause long-term health problems. And sometimes, those problems can be permanent, irreversible, and fatal. Let this article – and the information it contains – act as a stark reminder that although the opioid crisis dominates the national conversation on substance use and abuse, underage drinking should not be dismissed or relegated to the background. Let’s keep our eye on the ball. Let’s remember our teenagers rely on us to separate the relevant facts from the sensationalist headlines and need our help to navigate the tricky transition from adolescence to adulthood.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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