Coronavirus: stay safe with our facts, information and practical advice about alcohol and your health

Know the risks of drinking alcohol underage

Underage drinking can put children at increased risk of physical and social harm


Often people make light about their first experiences with alcohol. However, three in ten young people who have drunk alcohol (30%) have experienced a negative consequence of their drinking1

Risks associated with drinking alcohol underage

  1. Alcohol poisoning

    Anyone who drinks a lot in a short space of time can suffer alcohol poisoning.

    The level of alcohol gets so high that it can seriously affect the parts of the brain that control balance and speech, as well as affect the nerves that control your breathing and heartbeat and lower your body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia. It can also cancel your gag reflex, putting you at serious risk of choking to death, especially if you vomit.

    In 2014, there were nearly 4,000 admissions of under-18s related to alcohol poisoning2

  2. Accidents and Injuries

    Just as with adults, drinking alcohol can reduce a child’s mental and physical abilities at the time, affecting judgment and co-ordination – which can lead to mishaps and sometimes accidents and injuries

    Due to a young person’s lower body weight and limited ability to metabolise alcohol, acute intoxication can occur rapidly in children and young people3.

     Research shows adolescents who tested positive for alcohol were more likely to get injured or have accidents than non-drinkers4.

  3. Appearance and Side Effects

    Research shows that underage drinkers are more likely to suffer from a range of health issues including weight loss, disturbed sleep, headaches.5 

  4. Brain Development and education

    During childhood and teenage years, the brain is still developing. Alcohol can affect memory function, reactions, learning ability and attention span6 – all especially important during their school years.

    Evidence also reveals that children who start to drink by age 13 are more likely to go on to have worse grades, to skip school and, in the worst case scenario, to be excluded from school7.

  5. Mental health

    43% of young people, who drink alcohol, have reported that they are drinking to cope in some way, such as to cheer themselves up or to forget about problems8.

    Evidence also points to alcohol misuse and mental problems being closely related9.

  6. Other substances

    While excessive drinking by adolescents is a problem in its own right, it is at times linked to other harmful behaviours – like taking illicit drugs.

    Compared to non-drinkers, underage drinkers are more likely to smoke tobacco, use cannabis or use other hard drugs10.

  7. Vulnerability

    Puberty is often a very tricky time for kids – both emotionally and physically. Their natural tendency can be to experiment and take risks is increased. Drinking alcohol can put them in vulnerable or dangerous situations.  For example, among 10 – 17 year olds who have had an alcoholic drink, 12% have experienced a serious harm as a result of their drinking (trouble with the police, being a victim of crime, been taken to hospital or gotten into a fight)11.

  8. Liver damage

    Drinking alcohol can increase the risk of developing liver disease and young people who drink regularly are also at risk and start to damage their livers without realising.

    The warning signs only show after a few years. In Britain, significant numbers of people are now dying with alcoholic liver disease in their twenties12.

A doctor’s view of the risks

Dr Sarah Jarvis discusses these risks from a GP’s perspective.

Find out how to answer you child's difficult questions about alcohol


[1] Ipsos MORI (2016) Drinkaware Monitor 2016: Teenage drinking and the role of parents and guardians [Online] Available here: [Accessed 27 June 2017].

[2] Department of Health (2014) Hospitals: Admissions:Written question – 203491. [Online] Available here:

[3] ibid.

[4] Sincelar et al (2004) Adolescent Alcohol Use and Injury: A Summary and Critical Review of the Literature. 

[5] Newbury-Birch et al (2008) Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.

[6] Clark et al, (2008) Alcohol, Psychological Dysregulation, and Adolescent Brain Development. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research Vol. 32, No. 3 375-384; Newbury-Birch et al, 2008. Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.

[7] Ellickson et al (2003). Ten Year Prospective Study of Public Health Problems Associated with Early Drinking. Pediatrics 111;949.

[8] Ipsos MORI (2016) Drinkaware Monitor 2016: Teenage drinking and the role of parents and guardians [Online] Available here: [Accessed 27 June 2017].

[9] Newbury-Birch et al (2008) Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Young People: A Systematic Review of Published Reviews. Department for Children Schools and Families. Research Report DCSF-RR067.

[10] Fuller, E. (2015). Smoking, drinking and drug use among young people in England in 2014, Table 5.5b [Online] 
Available from  [Accessed: 10 February 2017].

[11] Ipsos MORI (2015) Drinkaware Monitor 2014: Young people’s and their parents’ drinking behaviour and attitudes in the UK. [Online] Available here: [Accessed 7 December 2016].

[12] Office for National Statistics (2017) Alcohol-Related Deaths in the UK, 2015, Reference Table 3 [Online]. Available here: [Accessed 10 February 2017].

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