Is Alcohol A Drug?

Last Updated: November 1, 2023

A drug is any substance that alters how a person’s body and mind work. Since alcohol fits this definition, it is considered a drug.

While alcohol may not be what comes to mind when you think of drugs, it actually is. A drug is technically a substance that creates a physiological effect when introduced into the body. Alcohol fits this description, making it a drug.

Alcohol – Is It Considered a Drug?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “A drug is any substance that can change how a person’s body and mind work.” Alcohol fits this description, altering your mind and body’s function. Because alcohol creates chemical changes that disrupt your body’s normal functioning, it is technically considered a drug.

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If It’s a Drug, Why Isn’t Alcohol Illegal?

Not all drugs are illegal, and many are used legally for medicinal purposes. Alcohol (and increasingly marijuana) is unique because it is legally used primarily for recreational purposes. While most recreational drugs are illegal due to their high propensity for creating addiction, alcohol is not.

Legalizing recreational drugs has always been a contentious issue, as seen in efforts to legalize marijuana. The legal status of alcohol used to be a controversial issue, and during Prohibition, alcohol was legally outlawed in the U.S. between 1920–1933.

What Is the Definition of a Drug?

When we look at the definition of a drug as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, it is referred to as: “something, often an illegal substance that causes addiction, habituation or a marked change in consciousness.” When approached by pure definition, alcohol clearly fits the bill of a drug in all classifications.

Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol stimulates the release of chemicals in the brain called endorphins. These chemicals cause a sensation of pleasure and are released naturally by the brain to reinforce behaviors necessary for survival. This promotes eating high-energy food, reproducing and socializing with others. 

Endorphin release by using alcohol is entirely artificial, caused solely by a chemical reaction in the brain. Additionally, the amount of endorphins is much higher than what would be released naturally. This artificially high quantity of endorphins affects the brain, strongly reinforcing it to seek alcohol again. When you use alcohol again, it further supports it, leading to an ever-building cycle that causes addiction to develop.

Comparisons of Alcohol With Other Drugs

Compared to other drugs, alcohol can, in some ways, be even more dangerous. Some important facts about alcohol compared to other drugs include:

  • Alcohol is the most widely used addictive drug in the U.S.
  • Alcohol withdrawal is more hazardous than any other form of drug withdrawal.
  • Alcohol is the most socially acceptable addictive drug in the U.S.
  • Like other drugs, fatal overdoses are possible with alcohol use.

While alcohol is legal and a commonly used social drink, it is still an addictive drug and carries many of the same dangers as other addictive drugs.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Alcohol absorbs into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine, then it makes its way to the brain as it affects the central nervous system. According to California State, about 20% of alcohol is absorbed through the stomach, and most of the other 80% is absorbed through the small intestine.

Once alcohol hits the brain, it interrupts the part of the brain that controls consciousness, heart rate and breathing patterns. This can cause slower reaction times and loss of coordination.

As the body starts to try to metabolize alcohol through the liver, the liver becomes unable to keep up as it can only process so much at a time. Drinking steadily or heavily creates a high blood alcohol concentration in the body, making a person feel drunk.

The depressant effects of alcohol can entirely overwhelm the body and its defense system, causing people to be unable to think or move clearly.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

  • Impaired judgment
  • Loss of inhibition
  • Slurring speech
  • Loss of balance
  • Blackout
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Delirium Tremens (DTs)

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

  • Depression
  • Brain damage
  • Stroke
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Liver Disease
  • Sexually Related Disorders
  • Cancer

Alcohol Addiction and Dependency

Addiction and dependency are related but separate potential consequences of long-term alcohol use. Addiction happens when the chemical effects of alcohol use cause a cycle where drinking alcohol causes an increased desire to use alcohol again.

Alcohol dependency often occurs when addiction is present but can develop even when someone doesn’t have an addiction but still uses alcohol heavily. When alcohol is constantly present in the bloodstream, your brain will eventually become more hyperactive to balance out the suppressing effect of alcohol. 

The increased hyperactivity of the brain restores normal function when alcohol is present but makes the brain “dependent” on alcohol. When alcohol’s effect is suddenly removed, the hyperactivity of the brain is no longer balanced and creates many symptoms until the brain can readjust. Dependency is what ultimately leads to withdrawal symptoms.

Risks of Alcohol Overdose

Like other drugs, it is possible to overdose on alcohol. Often called “alcohol poisoning,” an alcohol overdose is a life-threatening event that can occur when you drink too much within a short period, alcohol is combined with other drugs or your body doesn’t process alcohol quickly enough.

Symptoms of an alcohol overdose can include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty remaining awake
  • Vomiting
  • Inability to gag
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • Irregular breathing or long pauses between breaths
  • Slow heart rate
  • Clammy skin
  • Extremely low body temperature
  • Bluish skin color
  • Paleness

An alcohol overdose is a life-threatening event and requires immediate medical attention. If you are with someone who may have overdosed on alcohol, it is very important that you call 911 immediately. Delaying seeking help can allow the person’s condition to deteriorate and can lead to their death. 

Finding Treatment Options at Orlando Recovery Center

Orlando Recovery Center is a premier treatment facility for alcohol addiction in Florida. We offer many programs, including medical detoxification, inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, support groups and therapy, as potential components of our individualized treatment plans.

Recovering from alcohol addiction can be difficult; however, you don’t have to do it alone! We are here to support you during each step of your journey and help you achieve lasting freedom from alcohol addiction. Contact us today to learn how we can help you overcome alcohol addiction for good.

Why don’t people usually think of alcohol as a drug?

People don’t think of alcohol as a drug because, technically, it isn’t a drug, as it is not a pharmacological medication. Instead, experts consider alcohol a psychotropic substance. Although most drugs of abuse are psychotropic substances, not all psychotropic substances are drugs.

Is alcohol a gateway drug?

In some cases, alcohol use can be a gateway to other substance use. For example, those who binge drink are four times more likely to use other substances than those who do not drink.

Does alcohol show up on a drug test?

Alcohol can appear on drug and substance tests and can be detected in urine for up to 12 hours after the last drink. The items tested in each test are selected by the person ordering it, so if the person requests alcohol be tested, it may appear on the test.

Is alcohol classified as a drug by the FDA?

Alcohol is not classified as a drug by the FDA because it is not a pharmacological product used to treat or prevent disease.

Does the FDA regulate alcohol?

The FDA does not regulate alcohol. Instead, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau regulates alcohol.

Is alcohol a controlled substance?

Alcohol is not a controlled substance. Although it is illegal in 50 states to drink if a person is under 21, alcohol itself is not illegal. The Drug Enforcement Administration does not regulate it, nor does the Controlled Substances Act address it.

Sources

Food and Drug Administration. “Glossary of Terms.” November 14, 2017. Accessed July 1, 2023. 

Food and Drug Administration. “What does FDA regulate?” January 18, 2022. Accessed July 1, 2023. 

American Society of Addiction Medicine. “The ASAM Clinical Practice Guideline on Alcohol Withdrawal Management.” January 23, 2020. Accessed July 1, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Minimum legal drinking age of 21 saves lives.” December 7, 2022. Accessed July 1, 2023.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol and Other Substance Use.” July 25, 2022. Accessed July 1, 2023.

Raouf, Mena; Bettinger, Jeffrey J.; Fudin, Jeffrey. “A Practical Guide to Urine Drug Monitoring.” Federal Practitioner, April 2018. Accessed July 1, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” January 2023. Accessed July 1, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Neurotransmission Fact Sheet.” Accessed July 1, 2023.

Hendler, Reuben A.; Ramchandani, Vijay A.; Gilman, Jodi; Hommer, Daniel W. “Stimulant and sedative effects of alcohol.” Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 2013. Accessed July 1, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.” Accessed July 1, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction.” 2021. Accessed July 1, 2023.

PsychDB. “Alcohol Withdrawal.” May 3, 2021. Accessed July 1, 2023.

MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed August 7, 2023.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Drug Basics.” May 18, 2022. Accessed August 7, 2023.

Merriam-Webster. “Drug.” 2023. Accessed August 7, 2023.

Gureje, O.; Vazquez-Barquero, J. L.; & Janca, A. “Comparisons of alcohol and other drugs: experience from the WHO Collaborative Cross-Cultural Applicability Research (CAR) Study.” Addiction. October 1996. Accessed August 7, 2023.

State of California. “Alcohol Facts.” 2023. Accessed August 7, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol’s Effects on Health.” January 2023. Accessed August 7, 2023.

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