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Teenage drinking in the sun
It's that time of year where young people across the UK are putting down exam papers and picking up drinks. But how can we limit the dangers of teenage drinking in the sun?
The dangers of teenage drinking
Alcohol and sunshine is a dangerous enough mix for adults, but for the secondary-schoolers and university students swapping revision time for party time, the implications are even more worrisome.
While the UK legal drinking age is 18 years, the reality is that underage drinking remains ingrained in British culture. Despite a steady downward trend in teenage drinking, by 17 years of age around two thirds of boys and one half of girls drink alcohol every week1.
There are reasons the government sets a legal age limit. Science tells us that young people are significantly more affected by alcohol, because it can interfere with their development. For example:
Alcohol and developing bodies:
- Developing bodies are more vulnerable to long-term alcohol damage - such as heart and liver disease, mouth and throat cancer, and sexual and mental health problems.
- Alcohol can disrupt brain development and function.
- Teenagers are more likely to develop alcohol dependency - the pleasure centre in their brain develops faster than their decision-making skills.
- Injuries - young people who drink are much more likely to be in an accident while drunk.
- Unwanted sexual experiences - one in five girls and one in ten boys aged 14 to 15 go further than they want to in a sexual experience when under the influence2.
- Unsafe sex - alcohol is a significant factor for unsafe sex among secondary school and university students3.
- Antisocial and criminal behaviour - teenage drinking is associated with getting in trouble with the police, cannabis use, vehicle-related risk behaviours, tobacco smoking, self-harm, and physical inactivity4.
- Lower grades and school attendance - it takes longer for alcohol to leave a growing person's system, which can affect performance in lessons. Teenage drinking is also linked to higher exclusion rates5.
End of exam drinking in the sun
People of all ages need to be especially careful about drinking in the sun. For teenagers and university students, this also marks end of exam celebrations.
If you're a parent, it's difficult to control how your child celebrates with their friends. Still, gentle reminders of the additional dangers of drinking in the sun may have a positive influence that helps to counteract any peer pressure they may be facing during this time.
Both alcohol and heat can cause dehydration, and consuming alcohol causes you to urinate more frequently. This is because alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes the body to lose water through urine by inhibiting the production of the vasopressin hormone.
Plus, the heat from the sun can cause you to sweat more. The quantity of sweat produced can be as high as a couple of litres, depending on the heat and your activity levels. This can cause your body to lose fluids and lead to dehydration.
Dr Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy explains that dehydration can have serious consequences for your health. Even if you are just 1-2% dehydrated this can make you feel sluggish and tired.
Other signs of dehydration include:
Dehydration is also a major cause of hangover symptoms.
"Sitting in the sun means you are at increased risk of overheating, which has the potential to become heat exhaustion and ultimately, heatstroke," explains Dr Lee.
Each year in England and Wales, there are on average nearly 800 excess deaths associated with heat6.
"Being too hot puts strain on your heart too, increasing the risk of strokes and heart attacks."
It's possible you will ignore the dangers of the sun's UV rays on your skin if you aren't thinking clearly due to alcohol consumption. But, protecting your skin from the sun is important, both by wearing at least SPF 50 and seeking shade.
Excess sunlight exposure damages skin by accelerating the changes of ageing, causing loss of elasticity, wrinkling, and sagging.
In addition, excess sunlight exposure is strongly linked to the development of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.
Should I let my teenager drink alcohol?
How to talk to your teen about alcohol
- Choose a good time - when they haven't been drinking and you're both calm.
- Ease into the topic - for example, start by talking about a common interest first.
- Make it a conversation not a lecture - try to listen as much as you talk and encourage your child to be open about their thoughts and feelings.
- Attempt to understand why they want to drink - for example, show you understand that the culture of end of exam celebrations means they could be facing a lot of peer pressure to drink.
- Discuss reasons not to drink - this includes the health risks discussed in this article, as well as the effects of teenage drinking on skin, sleep, and weight gain.
- Emphasise the dangers of drinking in the sun - from skin damage to heatstroke, teenage drinking in parks and other sunny spots presents risks your child may not be fully aware of.
- Keep the conversation going - after your initial chat, touch base with your child from time to time. The period between exams and results is long and filled with sunshine, so keep asking questions and providing advice during this time.
What if my teenager is drinking after exams?
In reality, what your teenager gets up to is often out of your control. If you know or suspect they're drinking to celebrate end of exams, make sure they understand how to make drinking in the sun as safe as possible.
General drink safety tips - summertime
Dr Lee says: "You need to make sure you drink plenty of water. Drink one large glass of water for each alcoholic drink and keep a refillable water bottle handy if you are out and about."
Other tips for drinking safely in the sun include:
- Dilute your alcohol - with soda water.
- Go at a steady pace - spread out your alcoholic drinks and drink non-alcoholic drinks in between.
- Avoid mixing your drinks - stick to white or clear drinks, such as white wine - and if you are having spirits - gin, or vodka.
- Keep eating - food helps to delay the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream and protects the stomach lining.
- Seek out the shade - this reduces your chances of heat exhaustion.
Additionally, when drinking in the sun, you should continue to follow the normal sun safety steps:
- Wearing cool, loose-fitting clothes made of natural, not synthetic, fibres.
- Wearing a wide-brimmed hat to shield your face and shoulders from the sun.
- Using plenty of sun cream with SPF 30 - 50 if you are more vulnerable - and reapplying throughout the day.
What to do if you feel unwell after drinking in the sun:
"If you start to feel the effects of the alcohol and the heat, go indoors. Find a cool place to lie down and elevate your feet slightly. Stop drinking alcohol and drink a pint of water. If you don't feel better within 20 minutes or so, ask for help. Call NHS 111 for advice if you or someone else suspects signs of heatstroke," says Dr Lee.
One easy way to cool yourself down is by placing a bowl of cold water in front of a fan and angling the cold breeze towards you.
Warning signs of heat exhaustion:
Symptoms of heat exhaustion can creep up on you or come on quite suddenly. So, it's essential you are able to recognise them:
- Dizziness and feeling light-headed - a sign of low blood pressure.
- Muscle cramps.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Loss of appetite.
- Feeling very thirsty.
- Dry mouth, lips and tongue.
- Excessive sweating - or not sweating enough, which occurs in people with heat intolerance.
- Clammy skin.
- Feeling lethargic.
- Rapid breathing.
- Racing pulse.
- Raised body temperature - this might be 38°C or above.
Pass on this advice, and then take these steps to help you monitor and protect your child as much as you can this summer:
- Get to know their friends - to help identify and discourage negative influences.
- Get friendly with their friends' parents - to share the responsibility of monitoring their summer drinking behaviours.
- Talk to them about underlying issues - don't assume drinking after exams is all about celebration. Young people could be finding it hard to let go of exam stress, or there may be other life factors that are causing them to use alcohol as a coping mechanism.
- Lay down rules and punishments - remind your teen of the risks of teenage drinking, from their health to the possibility of arrest in public spaces.
- Encourage other interests and social activities - there are many other ways to enjoy the summer, from sports to creative hobbies or fun days out.
Don't beat yourself up, and try to be patient with your child. Learning about the risks of teenage drinking, alcohol in the sun, as well as how to navigate end of exam time celebrations and peer pressure can be a useful life lesson for many young people on their way to adulthood.
- Public Health England: Alcohol consumption and harm among under 18 year olds.
- Choudhry et al: Patterns of alcohol consumption and risky sexual behavior: a cross-sectional study among Ugandan university students.
- Moure-Rodríguez et al: Heavy episodic drinking and unsafe sex in college students.
- MacArthur et al: Patterns of alcohol use and multiple risk behaviour by gender during early and late adolescence.
- Nidirect: Young people and risks of alcohol.
- London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine: Deaths associated with heat.