Yes, alcohol is a drug as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary and in medical terminology. (EtOH is the medical abbreviation). It is not, however, a controlled substance according to the FDA.
While it’s not illegal for those who are of age, alcohol can cause dependence and addiction, habituation, and its use has a clear impact on brain health.
Why is alcohol considered a drug?
Alcohol is considered a drug because it meets the following criteria:
- It causes changes in consciousness when consumed
- It can lead to addiction
- Frequent use causes tolerance
Our culture is much more accepting of alcohol compared to other substances, but that doesn’t mean that it is any safer or less addictive.
Is alcohol a psychoactive drug?
Yes. Psychoactive drugs are substances that act on the brain and produce changes in mood, awareness, thoughts, feelings, or behavior. Alcohol can impact all five.
- Mood: Because alcohol is a depressant with temporary stimulant effects, it can cause mood swings.
- Awareness: When alcohol interacts with the brain, it changes consciousness and how aware someone is of their surroundings.
- Thoughts: Since alcohol can lower inhibitions and produce depressant effects, people that drink often have thoughts they otherwise would not have, including suicidal ideations.
- Feelings: Alcohol can cause mood swings or feelings of extreme highs and lows.
- Behavior: Alcohol lowers inhibitions and can cause out-of-character behavior.
Alcohol affects several brain regions:
Is alcohol a gateway drug?
Alcohol can be a gateway to other substances. This doesn’t mean that everyone who drinks will develop an addiction to harder substances, nor does it mean that everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic. But the fact is, many people who have other addictions started with alcohol.
The evidence isn’t just anecdotal. Research shows that alcohol is a gateway drug.
Some risk factors of developing alcoholism increase the risk of alcohol as a gateway drug include:
- Aggressive behavior, especially in early childhood
- Lack of support at home and amongst friends
- A family history of substance abuse
- Easy access to drugs
- Lack of resources
Does alcohol affect mental health?
Absolutely. Many people drink to take the edge off, but alcohol makes anxiety and depression symptoms worse in the long-term. More severe and more damaging effects tend to happen after years of frequent and heavy use.
Alcohol-related mental health conditions include:
- Major depression
- Panic disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
People who have mental health disorders as pre-existing conditions tend to get worse while drinking.
Which happens first: mental health issues or alcohol abuse?
Pre-existing mental health issues can fuel alcohol abuse. Many people with mental health struggles will self-medicate with alcohol. Over time, this turns to dependence and then addiction.
It also works the other way. Abusing alcohol makes people depressed and anxious, which can cause mental health issues to develop. Most of the time these symptoms will get better after the individual stops drinking, but some people will need further treatment.
Part of the treatment for alcoholism is looking at these connections in each patient and addressing how they affect one another.
Alcohol and Mental Health Disorders
Is alcohol considered a drug on a drug test?
Standard drug tests do not look for alcohol because they are meant to look for illegal substances. However, alcohol can be added on.
When Alcohol is Included on a Drug Test
- Employment screenings of jobs like machine operators, pilots or those in healthcare, (especially those working in alcohol addiction treatment).
- Employment screenings if alcohol if suspected or as part of a randomized safety program.
- Many probation tests, especially for alcohol-related offenses like D.U.I.
- Alcohol addiction recovery programs like sober living or IOP.
- When drinking plays into a crime, such as driving while intoxicated (usually a blood test is used instead of the standard urine tests).
Alcohol use is not typically a barrier to employment, against the conditions of parole or a factor in custody agreements.
Plus, alcohol clears the body quickly and can only be detected for 2-3 days.
Being worried about your drinking being “caught” is a sign of addiction.
JourneyPure.com doctors follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, count records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and their own expertise with decades in the fields and their own personal recovery.
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