Photo of friends toasting the New Year
The smart thing to do when celebrating with friends is to appoint a designated driver. They will make sure everyone gets home safe and sound and can still enjoy all the festivities as a sober participant.

Whether it's sipping mulled wine at a cozy winter gathering or toasting the new year with champagne, alcohol is a common part of many holiday traditions. For most of us, drinking is a simple pleasure. But when alcohol becomes the focus of a party, it's a sign of a real problem.

At what point does moderate drinking become problem drinking? The answer differs among individuals because of variations in tolerance and how people metabolize alcohol. According to federal standards, however, moderate drinking is defined as one drink a day for a woman and two for a man. A drink is defined as 1.5 ounces distilled spirits, 5 ounces of wine or 12 ounces of beer. Any more than this level on a daily basis is considered to be heavy drinking.

Does this sound extreme? For most people, it's not. Technically, alcohol is a poison. It is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, initially causing disinhibition, then acting as a depressant. A hangover from the night before is a sign that the body is going through withdrawal from alcohol. While moderate drinking has been shown to have a variety of health benefits, drinking more than a drink or two a day can lead to major health problems, most notably liver damage and heart disease.

Avoiding alcohol problems during the holidays

One unfortunate consequence of the holiday season is a sharp increase in alcohol-related accidents and deaths. Many partygoers don't drink often, leaving them with low tolerance and more vulnerability to alcohol's effects. At the other extreme are problem drinkers who find plenty of social occasions to drink and may feel less inhibited at parties where alcohol is liberally served.

Keep in mind that coffee or a cold shower does not eliminate alcohol from the bloodstream. Time is the only thing that gets rid of the alcohol in a person's bloodstream.

If you know you have an alcohol problem, mentally prepare yourself before a party. Decide ahead of time how much you will drink, then tell a friend or relative to help you stick with your plan. Don't delude yourself into thinking that not drinking for a few days before a party entitles you to extra drinking later.

If you're a guest, don't bring a bottle of alcohol as a present. Instead, consider bringing an array of teas, hot chocolate, cider and coffee mixes. That way you know a variety of non-alcoholic drinks will be easily available.

Being a role model

For parents, the holiday season offers an excellent opportunity to model the appropriate role of alcohol at parties. Children are astute observers of adult behavior and are more influenced by your actions than your words. Don't give the message that alcohol must be a key ingredient for good times. Those festive holiday celebrations will be remembered by your children for years and serve as a lifelong guide, so give them the best of memories.