Impacts of Underaged Drinking

Two girls unhappy about drinking alcohol

In the United States, underage drinking occurs when anyone under age 21 drinks alcohol in any amount or form. It's against the law, except in special cases, such as when it is part of a religious ceremony. Besides being against the law, there are a number of good reasons why young people should not drink.

Drinking too much is a major cause of death from injuries among young people. Each year, drinking alcohol contributes to the death of approximately 5,000 people under the age of 21; this includes about 1,900 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, 1,600 as a result of homicides, 300 from suicide, and hundreds from other injuries such as falls, burns, and drownings.

Drinking too much can harm the growing brain. Today we know that the brain continues to develop from birth through the adolescent years and into the mid-20s. The prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning and decision-making, does not completely mature until after the teen years. Using alcohol can harm a teen's ability to reason and weigh options instead of just doing something because it is fun or feels good.

Drinking too much can affect the body in many ways. The effects of alcohol range from hangovers to death from alcohol poisoning.

Drinking too much can lead to other problems. These may include bad grades in school, run-ins with the law, and drug use.

Drinking too much affects how well a young person judges risk and makes sound decisions. For example, after heavy drinking, a teen may see nothing wrong with driving a car or riding with a driver who has been drinking, whereas, before drinking, the teen might realize the risk involved.

Drinking too much plays a role in risky sexual activity. People do things when they are under the influence of alcohol—even a small amount—that they would not do when they are sober, including having sex even when they didn't want to and had not planned to do so. This behavior can increase the chance of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Before we look at some of these issues in more depth, let’s first look at some background information about how we measure alcohol strength and the amount of alcohol in a person's blood.

Next: How Much Alcohol Is in This Drink?