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Updated on September 4, 2023
7 min read

Underage Drinking: What Are the Effects and Why Is It Dangerous?

Alcohol use can significantly impact a teenager’s physical and mental growth, which is why underage drinking is a distressing health concern in the US. Here are some of the various statistics recorded over the years:2

  • By age 15, 33% of teens have had at least one drink. That number increases to 60 percent by the age of 18.
  • Over 5 million young people reported binge drinking. Over one million reported five or more days of binge drinking per month.
  • 29% of high school students drank alcohol in 2019.
  • 5% of high school students drove after drinking alcohol.
  • The most common age group below 21 that binge drinks are those between 18 and 20.
  • About 600,000 students sustain injuries while under the influence of alcohol.

The consequences of underage drinking can affect everyone regardless of age. Read on to learn what causes it and its potential risks and dangers.

What Are the Risks of Underage Drinking?

Alcohol is the most common substance abused by young adults in America. Underage drinking can be dangerous and lead to serious health issues later in life.

The legal drinking age in the United States is 21. However, 3.2 million people in 2021 aged 12 to 20 reported binge drinking at least once in the past month.9

While underage drinking may seem harmless, it can lead to serious consequences. Alcohol-related injuries are responsible for more than 3,900 deaths and 225,000 years of potential life lost among people under 21.2

Why Do Young People Drink?

Many college and high school students look at alcohol as a rite of passage. At this age, children are looking for ways to assert their independence.

For many teenagers, alcohol is a way to take risks, express themselves, and have new experiences. Common reasons teenagers may begin drinking include:

  • Seeing parents or family members drinking
  • Peer pressure
  • Wanting to look "cool" and fit in
  • As a coping mechanism for stress

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What Are the Effects of Underage Drinking?

Underage drinking has various side effects that can harm a person’s physical and mental well-being. It can also lead to many problems caused by the lack of inhibition and poor decision-making.

These side effects include:

  • Impaired cognitive functions
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Poor school performance
  • Developmental delays
  • Legal consequences
  • Being a victim of violent crimes
  • Brain development issues
  • Increased risk of serious injury (falls, drowning, alcohol poisoning, etc.)
  • Motor accidents or drunk driving
  • Engaging in risky activities
  • Suicide attempts
  • Unwanted pregnancy
  • Vandalism and property damage
  • Alcohol dependence
  • Alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Underage alcohol use can be fatal and contributes to thousands of deaths each year. This is because children and teens are likelier to drink too much, resulting in a fatal blood alcohol content (BAC) level. 

Does Underage Drinking Lead to Long-Term Health Problems?

Children who drink alcohol at an early age are at risk of developing substance abuse or drinking problems. This is especially true for children who started drinking before age 15.

It can lead to many other serious health problems, including:

  • Alcohol use disorder (AUD)
  • Learning difficulties
  • Altered bone growth
  • Inability to create memories
  • Increased risk for violence
  • Increased risk of mental health disorders
  • Sexual assault
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
  • Liver Disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Poor judgment skills
  • Risky sexual behavior (unsafe sex and unwanted pregnancy)

Excessive drinking or binge drinking increases the risk of long-term health complications. Binge drinking is having 5 or more drinks in a day for men. For women, binge drinking is having 4 or more drinks daily.

12 Signs Your Child Is Drinking Alcohol

Some common signs of underage drinking include:

  1. Adopting a "nothing matters" attitude
  2. Changing friend groups or hanging out with a riskier group of people
  3. Finding alcohol in your child's room, car, or backpack
  4. Having low energy and neglected self-care
  5. Lack of interest in activities
  6. Mental issues (memory lapses, difficulties concentrating, and slurred speech)
  7. Mood changes (defensiveness, anger, irritability, and a short temper)
  8. Physical problems like lack of coordination and bloodshot eyes
  9. Problems in school, like low grades, skipping class, or getting in trouble often
  10. Rebelling against family rules
  11. Staying out later than usual, sneaking out, and appearing tired often
  12. Smelling alcohol on their breath

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Risk Factors Contributing to Underage Drinking

Young adults living in specific conditions are more prone to teenage drinking than others. Some major risks associated with underage drinking include:

Childhood Behavior

A child's behavior during their younger years increases underage drinking risk. Impulsive, restless, or aggressive children ages 3 to 10 are more likely to participate in underage drinking.

Family Background and Lifestyle

Parents with alcohol problems increase the risk of underage drinking. Lack of parental support and monitoring are also contributing factors.

Environmental factors like financial status and early alcohol exposure can also contribute to underage drinking. This is especially true for children who have easy access to alcohol.


Some genes and genetic variants predispose someone to alcohol addiction. Those whose parents binge drink are likelier to drink alcohol than those whose parents do not. Children of alcoholics also experience stress and trauma, which leads them to alcohol abuse.

Psychiatric Disorders and Trauma

Children with mental health disorders are more likely to develop a drinking problem. This includes children with:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • ADHD
  • Bipolar disorders

Teenagers who experience child abuse or other traumas are also at risk of underage drinking. They may turn to alcohol to manage their stress and trauma.

College Life

College is a time for new experiences and a new sense of independence. Unfortunately, this often means new opportunities for drinking. 

Almost 55% of college students between 18 and 22 report regular drinking. In addition, nearly 40% report binge drinking regularly.


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What to Do if You Suspect Your Child Is Drinking

If you suspect your child is drinking, here are some things that you can do:

  • Stay calm
  • Initiate an open and honest conversation
  • Ask open-ended questions in a non-threatening way
  • Explain the physical and mental effects of alcohol
  • Seek treatment if needed

How to Reduce Underage Drinking

If you want to prevent underage drinking, discussing the issue with them is important. Here are a few ways you can prevent underage drinking:

  • Talking to your child about the dangers of alcohol
  • Having an open dialogue about the effects of drinking
  • Encourage worthwhile activities and hobbies
  • Support your child's interest in sports, acting, music, or volunteering
  • Allow your kids to have fun while doing something they enjoy

If they’ve already started drinking, avoiding accusatory or judgmental statements is important. Blaming them for drinking alcohol can be counterproductive. Remember, staying calm and supportive can help them approach the situation openly.

Do Underage Drinkers Become Alcoholics?

Although there are different types of alcoholics, alcoholic personalities, and tolerances, the health effects remain the same. While not all underage drinkers will develop AUD later in life, those who drink before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence.

Treatment for Underage Alcoholism

Substance use treatment and addiction rehab are effective for teens. Most teen rehab programs last about 12 to 16 weeks.

However, it’s important to understand that people react to treatment differently. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider for recommendations that suit your child’s needs.

Treatment options may include:


Underage alcohol consumption is dangerous and can potentially lead to long-term health complications. Teenagers who drink alcohol are also more likely to have developmental or learning problems.

Young adults with drinking habits are also more likely to engage in risky behaviors. This can lead to legal problems, risky sexual behaviors, and alcohol-related injuries or death.

Fortunately, there are ways you can prevent underage drinking. There are also treatment programs that can help teenagers recover from alcohol addiction.

Updated on September 4, 2023
9 sources cited
Updated on September 4, 2023
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  1. National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking. “Consequences of Underage Drinking.” Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, 2004.
  2. CDC - Fact Sheets-Underage Drinking - Alcohol.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022.
  3. Early Drinking Linked to Higher Lifetime Alcoholism Risk.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2006.
  4. Fall Semester-A Time for Parents To Discuss the Risks of College Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2023.
  5. How To Tell If Your Child Is Drinking Alcohol.” SAMHSA.
  6. NIAAA College Task Force - A Call to Action: Changing the Culture of Drinking at U.S. Colleges.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2002.
  7. Hingson, R., and Kenkel, D. “Social, Health, and Economic Consequences of Underage Drinking.” Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, 2004.
  8. Underage Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2023.
  9. Alcohol's Effects on Health: Research-based information on drinking and its impact.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023.
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All content created by Alcohol Rehab Help is sourced from current scientific research and fact-checked by an addiction counseling expert. However, the information provided by Alcohol Rehab Help is not a substitute for professional treatment advice.
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