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Underage drinking has immediate and long-term consequences

Even the most attentive parents may be shocked to learn how young many kids are when they start drinking -- too often with serious and even fatal results. According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, more than a third of teens have consumed at least one drink by the time they're 15. Nearly two-thirds have drunk alcohol by the time they reach 18.

Of particular risk is binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more drinks at one time. While many people associate that with fraternity and sorority parties, more than 90 percent of the alcohol consumption by those in the 12-to-20 range is through binge drinking. While boys and girls drink approximately the same amount overall, as adolescents get older, males are more likely to binge drink than females.

Alcohol can pose both immediate and long-term dangers to young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 2006 and 2010, over 4,300 people under 21 suffered alcohol-related deaths. The two most common causes were vehicle crashes and homicides. Over 10 percent were suicides. Falls, drowning, burns and alcohol poisoning accounted for 245 fatalities. The risk of sexual and physical assault also increase when a young person drinks.

Underage drinking also affects brain development in young people. It causes cognitive impairment and learning difficulties. Kids who begin drinking at a young age are more likely to develop alcohol dependencies later in life.

Many parents are rightfully concerned that their children are exposed to alcohol through friends. In fact, many young people get the alcohol right in their own homes or through older family members.

If you're concerned that your child or teen has a problem with alcohol, it's never too early to get help, either through a therapist or a rehabilitation program. However, it's essential to recognize the signs of underage drinking apart from smelling alcohol on a child's breath or witnessing them in a state of inebriation. These include:

-- Decreased interest in activities or personal appearance-- Academic or behavioral issues at school-- Low energy-- Changes in mood-- Problems concentrating-- Anger, irritability or rebelliousness

Of course, all young people display one or more of these signs at some point. But be alert to unexplained changes in their moods and activities. You don't want the first warning of alcohol abuse to be an arrest, injury or worse.

Source: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "Underage Drinking," accessed Feb. 16, 2017