Drinking too much alcohol on a regular basis harms your liver, nervous system, heart, and brain. It can cause health problems or make them worse. These problems include:
- Cirrhosis or pancreatitis.
- High blood pressure.
- Certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.
- A brain disorder called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.
Heavy alcohol use also can cause stomach problems, interactions between medicines and alcohol, and sexual problems. It can lead to violence, accidents, social isolation, and problems at work, school, or home. You also may have legal problems, such as traffic tickets or car crashes, as a result of drinking.
Drinking alcohol can cause unique problems for older adults and people who are pregnant or who have other health conditions. If you are pregnant, you should not drink any alcohol because it can harm your baby.
Drinking also makes symptoms of mental health conditions worse. When you have a drinking problem and a mental health condition, it's called a dual diagnosis. It's very important to treat all mental health conditions, such as depression. You may drink less when mental health conditions are treated.
How much alcohol is safe to drink?
Experts don't know if alcohol is safe in any amount. If you choose to drink alcohol, the key is to keep your drinking at low to moderate levels.
People who drink too much are hurting their health. Heavy drinking can cause all kinds of problems, from stomach and sexual problems to stroke and liver disease. It can also lead to problems at work, school, or home and to drunk driving and violence.
It may be hard to know if you are drinking too much. Because of things like age, sex, weight, and health history, alcohol affects people differently. But here's what experts say:
- If you don't drink, it's best not to start.
- If you do drink, limit how much you drink. A standard drink is 12 fl oz (355 mL) of beer, 5 fl oz (148 mL) of wine, or 1.5 fl oz (44 mL) of hard liquor. Experts recommend that:footnote 1
- Women have no more than 1 drink a day or 7 drinks a week.
- Men have no more than 2 drinks a day or 14 drinks a week.
- If you are 65 years and older, you may want to be even more cautious about the amount of alcohol you drink. Or you may not want to drink at all. This is because alcohol affects older adults differently.
- Experts consider excessive alcohol use to be high-risk drinking. This includes:
- Having more than 4 drinks in a day or more than 8 drinks a week if you are a woman.
- Having more than 5 drinks in a day or more than 15 drinks a week if you are a man.
- Binge drinking. This means drinking more than 4 drinks within 2 hours if you are a woman or more than 5 drinks within 2 hours if you are a man.
Drinking has a greater effect on women because they typically weigh less. But this isn't the only reason. Women's bodies have less water than men's bodies. Alcohol mixes with body water. So alcohol is more concentrated and more "powerful" in women than in men. Think of putting a drop of red food coloring in both a small and a large cup of water. The water in the smaller cup will be much redder.
It's important to remember that the only way to guarantee that drinking alcohol will not harm you at all is to not drink at all.
When is drinking alcohol unhealthy or unsafe?
There are certain times when drinking any amount of alcohol is unhealthy. You shouldn't drink if:
- You need to drive a car or operate other machinery.
- You are pregnant. Drinking during pregnancy makes a miscarriage or fetal alcohol syndrome more likely. A child who was exposed to alcohol in the womb may have physical and emotional problems. These problems can range from mild difficulties to severe birth defects.
- You take certain medicines. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can safely drink alcohol with any of the medicines you take. Common medicines that interact with alcohol include:
- Acetaminophen (such as Tylenol).
- Aspirin and other medicines to prevent clotting of blood (anticoagulants).
- Some medicines to treat depression (antidepressants) or other mental disorders.
- Any medicine that can make you drowsy. (Check the label.)
- You have certain health problems. Ask your doctor if you can safely drink alcohol if you have any of the following problems:
- Liver, stomach, and intestine problems.
- Heart failure and high blood pressure.
- Certain blood disorders.
- Mental health problems.
Current as of: November 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Peter Monti PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health
Current as of: November 8, 2021