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Is Alcohol a Drug? Drug Classification of Alcohol

Yes, alcohol is a drug. It is a depressant drug, which means it slows down the functions of the brain and body.

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What Is a Depressant?

A depressant is also known as a sedative. These substances can initially make you feel relaxed, calm, and mellow. 

At higher doses, depressants can have negative effects, causing drowsiness, slowed breathing and heart rate, inability to focus, nausea, vomiting, and unconsciousness. With regular use and at high doses, depressants can be dangerous and addictive.

How Alcohol Affects Your Body

With high levels of regular consumption, alcohol can take a big toll on your body’s health. While it may not be immediately obvious, the effects become more pronounced over time. 

Alcohol affects the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system. It can increase cholesterol levels, boost blood pressure to unhealthy levels, and increase the risk of cancer. 

Overall, drinking too much alcohol creates both short-term and long-term problems that pose a threat to health and overall well-being.

Brain Impact

Alcohol interferes with how the brain perceives, processes, and relays information. It can change your moods, behaviors, thinking, and physical coordination. 

Heart Impact

Drinking too much in one sitting or over some time can cause various cardiac problems, such as these:

  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Drooping of the heart, called cardiomyopathy
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Increased risk of stroke

Liver Impact

Alcohol use shows up in how well or how poorly your liver functions. High-level alcohol consumption can cause many serious liver issues, such as these:

  • Fatty liver
  • Hepatitis
  • Liver fibrosis
  • Cirrhosis

Pancreas Impact

Alcohol can wreak havoc on the pancreas, creating a toxic foundation for inflammation and swelling. 

Immune Impact

If you drink too much on a single occasion, your body’s immunity is lowered. If you drink too much on a chronic basis, your immune response is weakened overall. For example, compared to non-drinkers, heavy drinkers are more at risk of getting pneumonia, tuberculosis, and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Cancer Risk

Alcohol consumption has been scientifically linked to various types of cancer. It is listed by the National Toxicology Program of the United States Department of Health and Human Services as a known carcinogen (cancer-causing agent).

According to the CDC, drinking alcohol raises the possibility of getting cancer of the voice box, mouth and throat, esophagus, liver, colon and rectum, and breasts in women. 

The more you drink, the greater your risk of developing cancer. If you drink less, your risk is lower. If you never start drinking in the first place, your risks are even lower.

Risks of Depressant Abuse

When you first start drinking, it feels good, relaxing, and soothing. However, excessive alcohol can lead to opposite feelings like anxiousness, aggression, and poor coordination.

According to the CDC, depressant abuse, such as drinking too much alcohol, can lead to more risky behavior like driving while intoxicated or engaging in unsafe sex. They report that in the United States, 29 people die every day in motor vehicle accidents involving a driver who has been drinking. This translates to one person dying every 50 minutes.

Drug Interactions With Alcohol

Alcohol is not always taken on its own. Often, alcohol consumption is accompanied by the use of another drug. 

Combining alcohol and drugs can be dangerous, leading to extremely unpredictable results. This is true for both prescribed drugs and over-the-counter drugs. 


Sometimes, depressant drugs like benzodiazepines or GHB are taken in combination with alcohol. If you have a drink while taking another depressant, such as Xanax or Valium, you are taking a big risk. 

The combination of alcohol and a benzodiazepine can result in enhanced side effects from both substances, such as increased sedation, memory issues, hostile behavior, and headaches. 

According to the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, the mixture of alcohol and benzodiazepines can cause your heart rate to drop and slow your breathing, increasing the risk of an overdose. A 2018 study showed that alcohol can increase the toxicity potential of alprazolam (Xanax), leading to overdose more easily.


Drinking alcohol while taking opioids, such as Vicodin or Percocet, can result in a life-threatening overdose. 

The combination can slow breathing to dangerous levels, lower blood pressure and heart rate, and result in unconsciousness. This can lead to coma and even death. 

If overdose is suspected, naloxone should be administered promptly. It is a lifesaving tool that can reverse an opioid overdose temporarily.


When stimulants like cocaine or Adderall are taken with alcohol, they conceal some of alcohol’s effects. As a result, a person might drink far more than they normally would, leading to alcohol poisoning. 

People who combine these two substances may experience substantial impairment, blackout, or overdose.

Signs of a Drinking Problem

If you use depressants regularly, you are more likely to develop a tolerance. This means that you will eventually need to drink more to get the same effect. 

As your tolerance grows, you may drink more often and in greater amounts. With increased alcohol consumption, your body may begin to develop a dependence on alcohol. 

You may start drinking earlier in the day. You might notice that you are organizing your day around when you can drink alcohol. You may begin hiding your drinking to avoid questions about it. 

Psychologically, you could find that you have an urge to drink in specific environments. This could be a neighborhood bar, restaurant, or your own home. You may seek out environments where drinking is expected, such as wine tastings, parties, or social events. 

If you notice that your daily, weekly, and monthly calendar is defined by drinking, this can signal a problem. You may be craving alcohol and fostering dependence on drinking with other activities.

Here are some additional warning signs that you may have a drinking problem:

  • You sometimes black out when you drink.
  • You find excuses to drink even when it has negative effects in your life. 
  • You prioritize drinking over other important commitments.
  • You drink in secret or lie about your drinking.
  • Your drink first thing in the morning.
  • You only hang out with people who drink.
  • You isolate yourself from loved ones to drink instead.
  • You don’t feel right when you aren’t drinking.

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, it’s a sign that you may have a problem with alcohol. 

When to Seek Help for Alcohol Abuse

If you are concerned about your drinking or have tried to cut back without success, it’s time to seek help. If you have been drinking for a while at high levels, it’s not safe to simply stop suddenly. You need medical guidance to help you stop drinking safely.

Talk with an expert like a therapist, doctor, or addiction treatment specialist about how you can begin to cut back on your drinking behavior. In addition to medical assistance with detox, you’ll need therapeutic support to address the underlying reasons that led to your alcohol abuse. 

With some help, you can effectively stop abusing alcohol and look forward to a better future.  

Updated June 16, 2023
  1. Types of Drugs. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
  2. 7 Drug Categories. International Association of Chiefs of Police.
  3. Types of Recreational Drugs. Mind.
  4. Excessive Alcohol Use. (April 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  5. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  6. Influence of Ethanol on the Metabolism of Alprazolam. (June 2018). Expert Opinion on Drug Metabolism & Toxicology.
  7. Alcohol and Cancer Risk. National Cancer Institute.
  8. Alcohol and Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  9. Impaired Driving: Get the Facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  10. Depressants. Alcohol and Drug Foundation.
  11. The Effects of Combining Alcohol with Other Drugs. University of Michigan.
  12. Timing of Alcohol and Other Drug Use. (2008). Alcohol Research & Health.
  13. Alcohol Alert. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism.
  14. Alcohol Interactions With Psychostimulants: An Overview of Animal and Human Studies. (June 2016). Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy.
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