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Is Alcohol A Drug?

Written by Brandon Okey. Mina Draskovic, B.Psy., reviewed this content for accuracy.

Alcohol is widely viewed as more acceptable than substances such as heroin or cocaine. But its intoxicating effects on the mind and body raise the question: is alcohol a drug?

Yes. Alcohol meets the definition of a psychoactive, habit-forming drug. Understanding alcohol’s effects as a potent depressant drug provides motivation to consume responsibly and seek help if drinking becomes unhealthy. 

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Take a look at our alcohol rehab guide to learn more about the path towards lasting sobriety. We’re always here to help you leave alcohol behind.

What Defines a Drug?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “alcohol is among the most used drugs, it plays a large role in many societies and cultures around the world and greatly impacts public health.”

A drug can be broadly defined as any substance that causes a physiological or psychological change when introduced into the body. More specifically, drugs:

  • Originate from natural or synthetic sources
  • Interact with biomolecular targets in the body like receptors, enzymes, ion channels, and transport proteins
  • Alter chemical messaging and neurological pathways in the central nervous system
  • Modify biological processes and change perception, mood, cognition, or behavior
  • Have the potential to be addictive or habit-forming with repeated use
  • Can be used for therapeutic purposes or misused and abused for non-medical reasons
  • Vary widely in legality, social acceptance, and health consequences

Key properties that classify a substance as a drug include its ability to interact with biological systems and induce a physiological response. Both illicit drugs like heroin and legal drugs like alcohol meet this pharmacological definition based on their psychoactive and habit-forming nature in the human body and brain.

Does Alcohol Meet the Criteria for Being a Drug?

Alcohol is widely accepted in many cultures and is often viewed differently than illicit substances like cocaine or heroin. But alcohol does meet the definition of a drug in terms of its psychoactive effects on the brain and body.

Alcohol acts as a central nervous system (CNS) depressant and slows down brain activity. The intoxicating and depressant effects of alcohol come from its ability to enhance the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA and block excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate.

As a depressant drug, alcohol induces relaxation and euphoria in lower amounts. In higher doses, slurred speech, loss of coordination, impaired judgment and reflexes, and respiratory depression occur.

So while social drinking in moderation poses little harm for most adults, alcohol consumption in larger amounts acts as a potent CNS depressant that alters perception, mood, cognition, and behavior.

Why Is Alcohol Legal?

Unlike opioids, stimulants, and other illicit substances, alcohol is legal to purchase and consume for adults age 21 and over in the United States.

Alcohol owes its legal status largely to historical and cultural precedents. Alcohol production and consumption has been an integral part of human civilization for thousands of years. Prohibition in the 1920s demonstrated the impossibility of banning alcohol use outright.

Today, alcohol enjoys social acceptance despite its status as a drug that can produce dependence. But alcohol’s legality comes with important safety regulations and penalties for misuse.

Alcohol-Related Crimes

While alcohol possession and consumption is legal for adults, its use is regulated to protect public safety. Key alcohol-related crimes include:

  • Drunk driving: drinking and driving is illegal and punishable by license suspension, fines, and jail time.
  • Public intoxication: being dangerously impaired by alcohol in public spaces can lead to fines or arrest.
  • Underage drinking: drinking under the age of 21 is illegal and can be penalized by community service, license suspension, and enrollment in alcohol education programs.
  • Providing alcohol to minors: giving alcohol to those under 21 can result in criminal charges.

The legal status of alcohol aims to balance individual freedom to consume alcoholic beverages responsibly with protecting society from alcohol’s potential harms. While alcohol laws recognize it as a hazardous depressant drug, they allow its use within specific guidelines.

If you or a loved one are abusing alcohol or struggling with alcoholism, safe, effective, customized care is available. Contact us today to discuss treatment options that can help you regain health, safety, and sobriety.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body and Mind?

Alcohol induces widespread effects throughout the body and brain. In moderation, alcohol’s relaxing properties may be enjoyable. But excessive or prolonged alcohol use can severely impact physical and mental health.

Understanding how this commonly used drug affects the brain and body is important to make informed choices about alcohol consumption.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

In the hours after drinking, alcohol acts as a depressant that slows down the central nervous system. Short-term effects include:

  • Relaxation, sociability, talkativeness
  • Impaired coordination and balance
  • Delayed reaction times and impaired judgment
  • Slurred speech
  • Increased heart rate and skin flushing
  • Drowsiness, headaches, nausea
  • Impaired memory formation leading to blackouts
  • Loss of inhibitions and self-control

Higher blood alcohol content (BAC) causes more intense intoxication effects like vomiting, loss of consciousness, seizures, and even death from alcohol poisoning.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Over weeks to years of heavy drinking, alcohol takes a toll on both physical and mental health in many ways:

  • Fatigue, insomnia, increased injuries
  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke
  • Liver inflammation and cirrhosis
  • Stomach ulcers, pancreatitis
  • Various cancers, including breast and colon
  • Weakened immune system
  • Permanent brain damage affecting cognition, mood, sleep
  • Anxiety, depression, suicide risk
  • Alcoholism and substance use disorders

Alcohol dependency develops through increased tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when drinking stops. About 15 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder.

Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

People addicted to alcohol who suddenly stop drinking experience withdrawal symptoms. Delirium tremens (DTs) is a particularly dangerous manifestation of alcohol withdrawal syndrome that involves confusion, fever, and hallucinations. 

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal syndrome include:

  • Tremors, shaking, and muscle spasms
  • Anxiety, irritability, and restlessness
  • Insomnia and sleep difficulties
  • Abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting
  • Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
  • Agitation and mood swings
  • Seizures in severe cases
  • Delirium tremens

Withdrawal can be fatal without medical management. Alcohol detox clinics, such as Ardu, help people through this transition safely.

Health Risks and Dangers

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “alcohol contributes to approximately 18.5% of emergency department visits”. While moderate alcohol consumption poses little risk for most adults, excessive or long-term drinking can severely impact physical and mental health.

Alcohol Poisoning

Drinking a large amount of alcohol quickly can overwhelm the body’s ability to process it and lead to respiratory depression, hypothermia, vomiting, seizures, coma, and even death. Binge drinking and underage or inexperienced drinkers are at highest risk.

Prompt emergency treatment is vital in cases of alcohol poisoning, so don’t hesitate to call a medical professional if you or a loved one are showing the following signs of alcohol poisoning:

  • Confusion, stupor, loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting while unconscious, which can lead to choking on vomit
  • Slow, irregular, or troubled breathing
  • Hypothermia, or low body temperature
  • Seizures
  • Slow heart rate and low blood pressure

Issues Related to Chronic Alcohol Abuse

Heavy alcohol consumption also leads to:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome in newborns with prenatal exposure
  • Impaired liver function and liver diseases like fatty liver, hepatitis, fibrosis
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a severe thiamine deficiency that can cause vision changes, ataxia, memory loss
  • Increased risk of mouth, throat, liver, breast, and colon cancers
  • High blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, cardiomyopathy, stroke
  • Nerve damage leading to numbness and weakness in hands and feet

If you or someone you care about needs help managing alcohol intake, our alcohol addiction treatment providers can offer personalized care. With proven psychotherapies, peer support, and medications, we help people overcome alcohol addiction or abuse issues. Contact us today to explore your options.

Is Alcohol a Drug?Yes, alcohol is a drug. It’s classified as a depressant, meaning it slows down many of the body’s functions. Even a couple of drinks can have an effect. The more someone drinks, the more alcohol impacts an individual’s reaction time and coordination. Those are just the physical effects.

Psychologically, drinking affects judgment and rationale. That’s why so many people engage in risky behaviors when they’re under the influence. They may have unprotected sex, get into fights, or get behind the wheel despite knowing the dangers.

For anyone wondering, “Is alcohol a drug?” it’s the most widely used drug in America. Since so many people drink for various reasons, it’s not always easy to recognize when moderate use turns into abuse. Often, people downplay the adverse effects because they don’t think of alcohol as a drug the same way they do substances like meth or cocaine.

Because it’s legal, some people don’t see the danger in it. However, if you or a loved one struggle with addiction, it’s likely that you recognize the downsides.

The Dangers of Alcohol Abuse

Drowsiness and slowed motor skills may seem minor, but they contribute to DUIs every day. Major effects of alcohol abuse include:

  • Memory loss
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Personal and legal problems
  • Organ damage
  • Addiction

Like any other addictive substance, alcohol has the potential to create dependency. As a person drinks more, his body becomes used to drinking. Over time, his tolerance builds, so he must drink more to feel the same effects.

Alcohol may be a legal drug, but it can be just as damaging as illicit ones. It has the power to negatively impact someone’s family life, job performance, and health.

Now that you know the answer to “Is alcohol a drug?” are you worried that you or a loved one suffers from dependency?

Breaking the Damaging Cycle of Addiction

Ardu Recovery Center is an addiction treatment facility in Provo, Utah, that’s perfect for anyone looking for a Salt Lake City alcohol rehab center. We’re about an hour away from Salt Lake City, and we utilize traditional, evidence-based treatment methods alongside mindfulness-based interventions.

Our programs include:

With help from the compassionate staff at Ardu Recovery Center, you can rise up from the lows of drug and alcohol addiction and turn your life around. Contact Ardu Recovery Center today at 801-810-1234 for more information.

Do You Need Help Treating Your Alcohol Addiction?

Overcoming an alcohol addiction is extremely challenging, but with the right help and support, recovery is absolutely possible. At our addiction treatment center, we provide comprehensive alcohol addiction treatment to help guide you through the recovery process.

Alcohol Detox

The first step in alcohol addiction treatment involves safely managing withdrawal symptoms through medical detox or holistic detox.

We offer 24/7 medication-assisted treatment to relieve withdrawal symptoms that occur when alcohol use is reduced or stopped. Or, you can choose holistic treatment, where our caring staff can help you detox from alcohol with the help of medications, exercise therapy, nutrition therapy, and even yoga.

Alcohol Rehab

Once detox is complete, the real work of rehabilitation begins.

We offer customized alcohol rehab treatment plans that include various proven forms of therapy and counseling. Options range from intensive inpatient rehab programs where you reside at our residential treatment facility to outpatient rehab programs where you attend scheduled sessions but live at home or a sober living facility.

For those needing an intermediate level of support, we offer intensive outpatient treatment programs and partial hospitalization programs. Therapies provided include cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, family therapy, motivational interviewing, and more.

We help you address the root psychological and social causes of your addiction and teach you how to manage your addiction and achieve lasting sobriety. 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), many struggling with alcoholism also have co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, PTSD, eating disorders, and bipolar disorder. Our dual diagnosis treatment integrates care for substance abuse and mental illnesses simultaneously.

Our team of caring medical professionals provides the full spectrum of treatment services to help you regain health, safety, and sobriety. If you’re ready to break free from alcohol addiction and start your journey in recovery, contact us today. We’re here 24/7 to help get you started on the road to lifelong wellness.

Our dual diagnosis services include:

Start Your Sobriety Journey with Ardu

If you or a loved one are struggling with alcohol abuse, we can help you start your recovery in a judgment-free environment.

At Ardu, you can start your treatment with medically reviewed detox practices before moving on to group therapy or individual therapy sessions for alcohol addiction. Our experienced team will walk beside you through detox and rehab, and help you achieve lasting recovery. Reach out now to discuss your needs—help is always available.

In addition to alcohol addiction treatment, our drug and alcohol programs include:


Anyone struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction can enroll in our alcohol addiction treatment program. Our recovery center welcomes people with alcoholism seeking help to overcome their addiction. Our dedicated team of addiction professionals is here to guide and support you in your addiction treatment process, laying the foundation for long-term sobriety and relapse prevention.

How to Enroll

To enroll in an Ardu alcohol rehab program, contact Ardu Recovery Center online or via phone (801-810-1234). We will work with you to find a recovery path that works for you during the detox process and beyond. Read our admissions process page for additional information.

Does My Insurance Cover Paying for Treatment at Ardu?

Ardu addiction treatment services are covered by most insurance providers. If you want to verify your insurance coverage and gather more financial assistance information, visit our insurance verification page.

Brandon Okey

Brandon Okey is the co-founder of Ardu Recovery Center and is dedicated to empowering people on their journey to sobriety.

FAQ on Alcohol Addiction

What are some common signs of alcohol dependence?

Some signs of alcohol abuse and dependence include frequently binge drinking alcohol beyond 4-5 standard drinks, drinking alone or hiding it from others, unsuccessful efforts to cut back on drinking, physical withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, tolerance to alcohol’s effects, and neglecting responsibilities due to intoxication.

My family has a history of alcoholics. Will I become one?

Having a family history of alcoholism raises your risk for addiction to alcohol, but does not doom you to become an alcoholic. Being aware of your genetic predisposition, monitoring your drinking habits, avoiding risk factors leading to addiction to alcohol, and getting help early on can alter the outcome.

What are the different types of alcoholics?

Types of alcoholics include:

  • High-functioning alcoholics who are outwardly successful despite their alcohol abuse
  • Young alcoholics who start heavy drinking in adolescence
  • Chronic severe alcoholics with very high tolerance and physical dependence
  • Binge alcoholics who drink heavily but sporadically
  • Habitual drinkers who consistently drink moderate amounts daily

How can Alcoholics Anonymous help me get sober?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) provides peer support, sponsors, and a 12-step program focused on abstinence, self-improvement, and a spiritual path to recovery. AA aids sobriety through its community-focused approach and by revealing the truth about alcohol’s destructiveness.

Is alcohol a gateway drug?

Alcohol often precedes and increases the risk of illicit drug abuse, so it may act as a “gateway” drug in some cases. However, many factors beyond just using alcohol contribute to alcoholism and drug abuse. Alcohol itself does not destine someone to use other drugs.

Does Ardu offer online therapy?

No, Ardu does not offer online therapy. But, if you are looking for alcohol treatment providers in Utah, contact us. We’re happy to help you achieve lasting sobriety with a combination of behavioral health therapies, medically assisted detox, and holistic methods.

Does Ardu treat addiction to prescription drugs?

Prescription drugs are among the most common substances abused by people. At our addiction center, we offer both prescription drug detox and prescription drug rehab. Contact us and we’ll help you on your road towards sobriety.


  1. Alcohol | National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://nida.nih.gov/research-topics/alcohol
  2. Alcohol-Related Emergencies and Deaths in the United States | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2023, January 1). Alcohol-Related Emergencies and Deaths in the United States | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-related-emergencies-and-deaths-united-states
  3. SAMHSA – The Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. (n.d.). SAMHSA – the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/node

Further Reading

Can Alcohol Affect Birth Control?

What Is the Effect of Alcohol on the Kidneys?

Alcohol Abuse Statistics in the United States

How Long Does it Take to Detox from Alcohol?

The Basics of Alcoholics Anonymous