Long term health conditions

Alcohol, smoking and recreational drugs with a long-term condition

According to the young people who took part in this project, alcohol is very much part of British youth culture. They talked about alcohol far more than smoking or illegal drugs. Young people talked about their attitude to alcohol, their concerns about medication and drinking alcohol, the advice they got from their doctors and their own experiences.


Many young people found that the 'culture of drinking' was hard to handle when they were teenagers because they wanted to do what their friends were doing. Although as teenagers they hadn't understood the seriousness of their condition many said that they were still worried about drinking alcohol. One young woman said that, in her teenage years, she'd found it difficult to ask for advice about alcohol from her medical team because she used to go and see them with her parents. Several said they have learned from experience how much they can drink and now they either drink in moderation or not at all. In a few cases excessive drinking resulted in serious medical problems and they'd had to go to hospital. 

Many young people pointed out that it's difficult to know what will happen if you drink alcohol because everybody reacts differently to it. There can be differences between two people with the same condition there are often variations and the medications and treatments could be different too. For instance one young woman with epilepsy said that alcohol doesn't seem to affect her while another girl with epilepsy says she needs to be careful about the amount of alcohol she drinks because otherwise she will get myoclonic jerks (quick, involuntary, twitching of muscles). These symptoms are controlled by medication but doctors told her not to drink too much alcohol because it stopped the medication from working. Nowadays, she drinks very little.

Many of the young people we talked to said they drink very little alcohol or none at all. Some said their consultants have warned them against excessive drinking because alcohol in combination with certain medication can heighten liver damage. One young woman with rheumatoid arthritis has an extreme view on drinking alcohol and smoking and says that those who smoke or drink are 'unworthy of treatment'. One young man, also with arthritis, thinks that the message should be to make young people aware that if they are on medication they need to be very careful with alcohol. He usually has only one or two drinks.

Young people felt that they were also affected by the attitude of the friends they went out with. Several said that they feel comfortable going out with friends that don't put them under pressure to drink. Those who don't drink any alcohol when they go out with their friends said they could relax and enjoy themselves without drinking. But sometimes they found it difficult to explain why they don't drink any alcohol to people they don't know very well. Another girl said that for her the problem was that her friends would end up drunk and she will be the only one sober. Of course, it can be funny to see friends drunk. 

One young woman with type 1 diabetes is grateful to her nurse for giving her information and advice about drinking, early on. She says that this has influenced her attitude because it has made her aware of the short and long term consequences of drinking alcohol.


Most of the young people we talked to didn't smoke and didn't approve of smoking - just a few have experimented with cigarettes. Those who experimented with smoking did so in their teens. A young woman with sickle cell disease said that the problem when you are a teenager is that you want to do things like smoking or drinking alcohol because your friends are doing it. One young woman with epilepsy said that she still smokes on a regular basis.

Many of the young people we talked to commented on the difficulties of avoiding smoky places when going out with friends to pubs or clubs or, when working in restaurants or bars -which some of the young people were doing during their A levels and university years - this has improved since the change in the law on smoking in enclosed public spaces in 2007. One young woman with cystic fibrosis says that when working in a restaurant she was affected by the smoke and had quite a few IV treatments during that time. A young man with mild asthma said that he is not too affected by smoky atmospheres. 

Illegal drugs

One young woman talked to us about her experience of taking illegal drugs before she was diagnosed with epilepsy in her teens. She said that when she was diagnosed she was going through what she describes as a 'very rebellious' phase, staying out at parties and taking drugs. After her diagnosis she found out that having epilepsy meant that she could not take illegal drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy and heroin. She still wanted to take drugs so she compensated by drinking a lot of alcohol. She found it difficult to talk to health professionals about her drug taking because her parents didn't know about it. 

Her first consultant was someone she didn't get on with and she felt judged when she told her that she'd taken ecstasy the day she had her first seizure. But the poor communication with health professionals meant that she didn't have anyone to go to for advice and information about drinking alcohol or smoking cannabis. Looking back, she thinks she was angry and in denial about her epilepsy because it prevented her taking drugs. Now she says that her condition was like a 'blessing in disguise' because it prevented her from becoming a drug addict. 

For more on alcohol, smoking and illegal drugs see our sections on Drugs & AlcoholEpilepsy, Diabetes Type 1 and Depression and low mood.

Last reviewed July 2017.

Last updated May 2014.



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