• West Virginia University School Of Public Health: Alcohol Awareness

    What is Alcohol?

    Alcohol has a long history. It has been used in religious ceremonies, as a medicine, and socially for thousands of years. Laws and codes of conduct governing its use and misuse have been a part of human culture throughout history. Some people can use alcohol occasionally and responsibly, while for others the effect of alcohol can be devastating. Herein lies the complexity of alcohol use.

    Alcohol is a psychoactive substance, which means that it has the ability to change consciousness and to alter perceptions and behavior. The alcohol found in beverages is known as ethanol or ethyl alcohol. This is the only type of alcohol that is safe to consume, and then only in small quantities.       

    While there is much controversy over the many problems associated with alcohol, the fact is that a large segment of the population chooses to consume alcoholic beverages. Many people begin drinking during early adolescence. The use of alcohol by college students is a major problem. People in their 20's and 30's comprise the group most often arrested for drunkenness and for driving while intoxicated. However, even senior citizens are not immune to alcohol abuse.

    Approximately half of all alcohol is consumed by just ten percent of the drinking population. A host of social issues plagues this group of heavy drinkers. Lost work time, family pathologies, and medical factors are just a few of the complications associated with alcohol abuse.


    Production of Alcohol


    Fermentation is a natural process in which airborne yeast settles on overripe fruits, honey, grain products, etc., and feeds on the sugars. The yeast breaks down certain starches in the sugars, and from this process ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide are produced. In natural fermentation, when the alcohol content reaches a potency of approximately 14 to 15 percent, the process ends.

    ?Distillation of alcohol increases its potency. This process, which was first developed around 800 A.D., involves collecting the steam from boiled alcoholic mash (wine, fruit, grain, etc.). The steam, which has a higher alcoholic content, is collected in a special apparatus. When cooled, the resulting liquid has a high alcohol content and a low water volume.

    The term proof is a measurement of the alcohol content of a beverage. Proof can be defined as twice the alcohol content of a drink. For example, a bottle of liquor that is designated as 110 proof would contain 55 percent alcohol.


    Types of Alcoholic Beverages


    The alcoholic content in a beverage is determined relative to its proof, which is twice the alcohol content. For example, a glass of 24 proof wine would be 12 percent alcohol. A drink that is 40 percent alcohol would be 80 proof. There are three main categories of alcoholic drinks: beer, wine, and distilled spirits (hard liquor).

    Beer making has a long history. As far back as 2000 B.C., the Code of Hammurabi set standards for beer production and behavioral codes pertaining to drunkenness. Beer is made from grain, malt, hops, yeast, and water. Historically, beer was full-bodied and quite nutritious. The beer of today is highly filtered and of negligible nutritious value, although calorie-laden. The alcohol content of beer in the United States is generally between three and six percent. Grain drinks with a higher level of alcohol are called malts, lager, or ale.

    Wine also has a long history. Historically, many monasteries have been known for their wine production. A number of fruits can be used to make wine, including grapes, berries, or peaches. The fruits are crushed, and yeast may be added. In general, the darker the color of wine, the longer the aging process. American wine is approximately 9 to 14 percent alcohol. Fortified wines are those with an alcohol content higher than 14 percent. Such wines contain added alcohol or brandy to increase the alcohol content to approximately 20 percent.

    The remaining major category of alcoholic drink is distilled spirits, often called "hard liquor." The natural fermentation process stops when the alcohol content reaches 14 percent. However, the discovery of the distillation process by the Arabs led to the use of this type of beverage with its higher alcoholic content. Distillation involves heating the substance of choice and capturing the steam that is released. When cooled, the steam contains less water and more alcohol. A number of different products are used for distilled spirits including corn (bourbon), potatoes (vodka), sugar cane (rum), wine (brandy), and malts/grains (scotch).

    ?           It is difficult for many people to ascertain exactly how much alcohol is found in a drink. A good rule of thumb is that a 12-ounce, 10 proof beer is equal to a five-ounce glass of 24 proof wine, which is equal to a 1 1/2 ounce shot (jigger) of 80 proof hard liquor (distilled spirits). Each of these drinks contains 0.6 ounces of alcohol. To determine how much ethanol (alcohol) is in a drink, divide the proof by half, and then divide that number by 100. Multiply the result by the number of ounces in the drink. Remember that proof is twice the percent of alcohol.


    5 ounces of wine?24 proof??24 ÷ 2 = 12 (% alcohol)??12 ÷ 100 = 0.12??0.12 x 5 oz?=?0.6 ounces ethanol

    12 ounces of beer?10 proof??10 ÷ 2 = 5 (% alcohol)??5 ÷ 100 = 0.05??0.05 x 12 oz?=?0.6 ounces ethanol

    1 1/2 shot?80 proof??80 ÷ 2 = 40 (% alcohol)??40 ÷ 100 = 0.4??0.4 x 1.5 oz?=?0.6 ounces ethanol


    If you know the percent of the drink, step 1 (finding the percent) can be eliminated.


    Other types of alcohol are not safe to drink. They can be toxic and even fatal if consumed. They include:


    Butyl alcohol, or butanol. This type of alcohol, derived from butane, is commonly used in products such as adhesives and varnishes. 


    Methyl alcohol, also known as methanol or wood alcohol. It is used in the manufacture of formaldehyde and as industrial solvent. During Prohibition wood alcohol gained notoriety as a mixing agent with ethyl alcohol to make liquor. Several people became blind after drinking this toxic mixture, as methyl alcohol causes swelling of the optic nerve, an irreversible condition. 


    Isopropyl alcohol, also known as rubbing alcohol, is a common household product. It is used as a disinfectant and as an ingredient in cologne and after-shave lotion.


    Ethylene glycol, also known as antifreeze, is the most harmful type of alcohol. It should never be consumed, as it is deadly.





    Alcoholism is a serious problem in the United States. Consequences of alcohol use and abuse affect not only the drinker but also families, communities, and the workplace. Not all drinkers become alcoholics. Social drinkers tend to act responsibly when consuming alcohol. Problem drinkers, however, engage in alcohol abuse, which is characterized by recurrent alcohol use with negative consequences or drinking patterns that result in personal, legal, professional, or academic problems as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

    Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is characterized by long-term use of alcohol, which, if withheld, results in withdrawal symptoms. It may be possible to identify a problem drinker by observing types of drinking behavior. Signs of alcohol problems may include:

        craving for alcohol

        drinking alone

        Being secretive about drinking

        lying about alcohol use

        hiding alcohol or empty bottles

        unpredictable behavior when drinking

        anxiety in situations where alcohol is not available

        increasing amount of alcohol consumption

        passing out from alcohol consumption

        memory blackouts

        being late for meetings or important appointments

        "forgetting" social obligations or family responsibilities

        using alcohol in times of stress

        engaging in risky behavior when drinking (for example, driving)

        drinking in the morning and at other unusual times

        calling in "sick" frequently

        often looking and feeling bad

        denying that alcohol is a problem

        physical dependence on alcohol

        exhibiting withdrawal symptoms if alcohol is withheld


    The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has developed the CAGE questionnaire to help the alcoholic or family to determine if alcohol use is problematic.

        Have you ever felt you should Cut down on your drinking?

        Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?

        Have you ever felt bad or Guilty about your drinking?

        Have you ever had a drink the first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover (Eye opener)?


    One positive response is indicative of a possible problem with alcohol. More than one positive response means it is highly likely that a problem exists. Since those with alcohol problems often experience denial, any drinking-related problems should be suspect even if the drinker responds "no" to the CAGE questionnaire.

    Not all alcoholics exhibit the same drinking pattern. Some drink every day; others engage in heavy drinking on the weekends. Stressful life experiences may be the impetus for very heavy episodic drinking. Some alcoholics drink only late in the day and never in the mornings. Others engage in long periods of sobriety alternating with binge drinking episodes that can last weeks or months.