Alcohol and Other Drugs

As a student, you might need to make decisions about drinking—at parties, on dates, or even at home. It is best to make careful, thoughtful decisions about alcohol before or if you decide to drink. Remember that the legal drinking age is 21 years old. If you decide to drink, drink responsibly. There are serious health risks and behavior problems associated with the use of alcohol in the collegiate environment.

If you feel you are having serious difficulties with controlling your consumption of alcohol or drugs, consider making an appointment at the Student Counseling Service to speak with someone who can help. You may also consider participating in BASICS, a free service for students who want to explore their alcohol use. Designed to assist students in examining their own substance behaviors in a non-judgmental environment, BASICS helps reduce risky behaviors and harmful effects from drinking.

For information on getting immediate help, visit the Get Help Now page.

The answer is always no. You don’t have to drink if you do not want to.

According to a 2017-2018 AlcoholEDU for College Students Survey, of more than 363,671 college students in the U.S. surveyed, 38 percent of incoming students did not consume any alcohol during the previous year, and 28% consumed no alcohol in the past two weeks. It is easy to assume that all college students drink alcohol, when in reality, many students do not drink alcohol, and of those who do, most actually drink in safe and healthy ways.

If you are hosting an event, view Health Promotion and Wellness’ Social Host Guide for guidelines to have a safe and fun event.

Other tips for staying safe while drinking include:

  • Understand what a standard drink is. One drink is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 8–9 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of table wine, or a 1.5 shot of 80-proof distilled spirits, like gin, rum, or vodka.
  • Watch your drink being poured, or make it yourself.
  • Don’t leave your drink unattended.
  • Know your limits and use strategies to stay within them.
  • Plan ahead. Determine in advance the number of drinks you will have.
  • Try to avoid drinking games. Students typically drink more alcohol at a higher rate when participating in competitive drinking.
  • Alternate non-alcoholic drinks with alcoholic ones to slow down your pace and stay hydrated.
  • Eat a meal high in protein before or during consumption.
  • Decide in advance how you will get home. Visit UChicago’s transportation website for more information on a safe way home.
  • Use the buddy system. Stay with your group of friends, and help to support each other in making healthy choices.

Alcoholic beverages are often associated with unwinding, socializing, and having fun. However, there are times when drinking too much can be harmful to you and others. Remember, you don’t need to drink to have fun. If you do want to drink, consider drinking in moderation.

Have zero drinks if you:

  • Are under 21
  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Are driving a car, motorbike, or other machinery
  • Are taking a medication or other drugs
  • Have an alcohol dependence

Low-risk drinking for women is considered:*

  • No more than three drinks on any single day
  • No more than seven drinks in a week

Low-risk drinking for men is considered:*

  • No more than four drinks on any single day
  • No more than fourteen drinks in a given week

Remember, not all drinks are equivalent. One drink is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 8–9 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of table wine, or a 1.5 shot of 80-proof distilled spirits, like gin, rum, or vodka.

* Males tend to be able to process higher amounts of alcohol faster.

There are many factors that affect your blood-alcohol concentration—or BAC—and not everyone’s BAC rises and falls at the same rate. This means that even if two people drink the same amount of alcohol, over the same length of time, their BACs can still be different. These factors include:

  • Weight. The less someone weighs, the less body water and mass they have to absorb the alcohol, which means they’ll have a higher concentration of alcohol in their bloodstream and a higher BAC.
  • Food. Alcohol consumed while/after eating food is absorbed slower because it spends more time in the stomach.
  • Biological sex. Males tend to be able to process higher amounts of alcohol faster.
  • Time. The faster the drink, the faster your BAC rises.
  • Other liquids. Carbonated beverages speed up the alcohol absorption process, causing your BAC to rise more quickly.
  • Medication. Some medications can amplify the effects of alcohol on your body.

The foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibly website has a calculator to help you determine your BAC.

For men, more than four drinks on one day or more than fourteen in one week is considered “at-risk” or “heavy” drinking. For women, it’s more than three drinks on one day or more than seven per week. The more you engage in “heavy drinking days” over time, the greater your risk is for developing an alcohol use disorder or other health or personal problems.

You are more likely to drink heavily if you engage in risky behaviors, including:

  • Taking shots. When you take a shot, alcohol is absorbed quickly into the body.
  • Playing drinking games. Drinking games may encourage you to drink more quickly, and will often make it hard for you to keep track of how much you’ve had to drink.
  • Pregaming. Drinking before you go out is dangerous because your total alcohol consumption during an evening can reach dangerously high levels.
  • Chugging. Binge drinking puts you at higher risk for alcohol dependence.

If someone is exhibiting signs of alcohol poisoning, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately—do not wait for all the symptoms to be present. Never leave someone experiencing an overdose alone to “sleep it off”; a person who has passed out may die or experience other long-term consequences.

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

  • Mental confusion, stupor, or unconsciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute)
  • Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
  • Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish or grayish skin color, paleness

How to Help

  • Keep the individual awake and sitting up
  • Give them water (if they are able to drink it)
  • Keep them warm
  • Lay them on their side (if they are passed out)
  • Check to see that they are breathing properly

What Not to Do

  • Don’t let the individual sleep it off
  • Don’t give them coffee
  • Don’t make them sick
  • Don’t walk them around
  • Don’t put them under a cold shower
  • Don’t let them drink any more alcohol

After alcohol, the most commonly used drugs by college students are marijuana and prescription medications. Here are some common questions when considering marijuana use.

Marijuana relieves stress, right?
Some people report feeling nothing, and some report experiencing a state of euphoria or “high.” But marijuana can also make people feel more anxious, even bringing on panic attacks. Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the key ingredient in marijuana, has also been shown to impair learning, memory, and motivation.

Is marijuana addictive?
Yes. Marijuana can be addictive, especially for those who start young and/or use marijuana frequently. Some long-term users report experiencing withdrawal symptoms including irritability, sleeplessness, and anxiety.

Is marijuana stronger today than it used to be?
THC concentration averaged close to 15% in 2012, compared to around 4% in the 1980s. But, it's tough to accurately measure potency, as there can be significant variations from plant to plant and sample to sample. For people who smoke, it's hard to know exactly how much THC is being consumed at a given point in time.

Marijuana grows naturally, so how could it be harmful?
Marijuana is still a drug, and like all drugs, comes with the potential for health risks. It can weaken the lungs and increase your heart rate. It can also affect brain development in adolescents. Some research indicates marijuana’s effects on thinking and memory may last a long time or even be permanent. A number of studies (including this 2007 study and this 2009) study have linked chronic marijuana use and mental illness.

It's pretty safe to drive after smoking marijuana, right?
The key ingredient in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, affects coordination, reaction times, and judgment. Data from several studies has found that marijuana use more than doubles a driver's risk of being in an accident. Combining marijuana and alcohol further increases risk.

Tobacco use is the largest preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans each year (about 1 of every 5 deaths) with more than 41,000 of those deaths from exposure to secondhand smoke. In addition to cigarette smoking, smokeless tobacco, such as chewing tobacco, also has harmful chemicals that can cause cancer, heart disease, and gum disease.

E-Cigarettes and vaping have become very popular in recent years, and while they are less harmful than tobacco cigarettes, they are not without risk and potential harm from nicotine and other chemicals. In addition, scientists still have a lot to learn about whether e-cigarettes are effective for quitting smoking.

Tools to Quit

Keep in mind that quitting is not easy. Some smokers can quit without assistance, but most who attempt to quit do not succeed on the first try. Combining some type of emotional support like counseling with a type of Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) or medication proves to be the most successful method.

Group or Individual Support

  • Courage to Quit is a group-based, comprehensive approach to smoking cessation offered by the University of Chicago Medicine.
  • Student Counseling Service can provide individual therapy for help with addiction.
  • Your primary care physician can help you choose the right options for you to be successful in quitting.

Online Support

Telephone Support

Nicotine Replacement Therapy

Nicotine in tobacco products can lead to physical dependence, causing withdrawal symptoms when a person tries to quit. Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) provides nicotine in the form of gums, patches, sprays, inhalers, or lozenges. NRT can help relieve some of the physical withdrawal symptoms so individuals can focus on the emotional aspects of tobacco dependence as well. Always consult with a doctor before starting any NRT.

Prescription Drugs

There are a variety of prescription drugs to help you quit smoking, including Bupropion, Varenicline (Chantix), Nortriptyline, or Clonidine. Your doctor can help you choose which options would be best for you.

Prescription drugs include amphetamines and opioids. Amphetamines, or prescription stimulants, are prescribed to help people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They have focusing effects on people with ADHD, but do not enhance learning or thinking abilities when taken by people who do not have ADHD. Repeated abuse can lead to addiction and feelings of hostility or paranoia.

Opioids, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, can be used to manage pain when taken as prescribed. When abused, opioids can be very dangerous, potentially leading to life-threatening respiratory problems, physical dependence and/or addiction.

Taking a prescription that is not yours is not only illegal, it’s dangerous. Dangers are more severe when prescriptions are taken with other substances, such as alcohol.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has more information on commonly abused drugs and their side effects.

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