The risks of drinking too much

Most people who have alcohol-related health problems aren’t alcoholics. They're simply people who have regularly drunk more than the recommended levels for some years.

The NHS recommends:

  • Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day
  • Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day
  • If you've had a heavy drinking session, avoid alcohol for 48 hours

    "Regularly" means drinking this amount every day or most days of the week.

    Regularly drinking more than the recommended daily limits risks damaging your health.

    There's no guaranteed safe level of drinking, but if you drink less than the recommended daily limits, the risks of harming your health are low.

    And it's certainly not only people who get drunk or binge drink who are at risk. Most people who regularly drink more than the NHS recommends don't see any harmful effects at first.

    Alcohol’s hidden harms usually only emerge after a number of years. And by then, serious health problems can have developed.

    Liver problems, reduced fertility, high blood pressure, increased risk of various cancers and heart attack are some of the numerous harmful effects of regularly drinking more than the recommended levels.

    The effects of alcohol on your health will depend on how much you drink. The more you drink, the greater the health risks.

    Drinkers can be divided into three risk categories: 

    • lower-risk drinkers 
    • increasing-risk drinkers
    • higher-risk drinkers

    Read about alcohol units to work out how much alcohol there is in your drinks.

    Lower-risk drinkers

    Lower-risk drinking means that you have a low risk of causing yourself future harm.

    However, drinking consistently within these limits is called "lower-risk" rather than "safe" because drinking alcohol is never completely safe.

    To be a lower-risk drinker, the NHS recommends that:

    • Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units a day.
    • Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day.

    Even drinking less than this is not advisable in some circumstances. Drinking any alcohol can still be too much if you’re going to drive, operate machinery, swim or do strenuous physical activity.

    Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should not drink alcohol. When you drink, alcohol reaches your baby through the placenta. Too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect your baby's development.

    If you're pregnant and choose to drink, do not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week, and do not get drunk. This will minimise the risk to the baby.

    People who drink should aim to be in the lower-risk category to minimise the health risks.

    Increasing-risk drinkers

    Drinking at this level increases the risk of damaging your health. Alcohol affects all parts and systems of the body, and it can play a role in numerous medical conditions.

    Increasing-risk drinking is:

    • regularly drinking more than 3-4 units a day if you're a man
    • regularly drinking more than 2-3 units a day if you're a woman 

    If you're drinking at around these levels, your risk of developing a serious illness is higher than non-drinkers:

    • Men are 1.8 to 2.5 times as likely to get cancer of the mouth, neck and throat, and women are 1.2 to 1.7 times as likely. 
    • Women are 1.2 times as likely to get breast cancer.
    • Men are twice as likely to develop liver cirrhosis, and women are 1.7 times as likely.
    • Men are 1.8 times as likely to develop high blood pressure, and women are 1.3 times as likely.

    If you're an increasing-risk drinker and you drink substantially more than the lower-risk limits, your risks will be even higher than those above.

    At these levels of drinking, you may already have alcohol-related problems, such as fatigue or depression, weight gain, poor sleep and sexual problems.

    Whatever your age or sex, you’re probably in worse physical shape than you would be otherwise. Also, you could easily have higher blood pressure due to your drinking.

    Some people argue a lot when they drink, which can negatively affect their relationships with family and friends.

    Higher-risk drinkers

    If you’re in this group, you have an even higher risk of damaging your health compared with increasing-risk drinkers.

    Higher-risk drinking is:

    • regularly drinking more than 8 units a day or 50 units a week if you're a man
    • regularly drinking more than 6 units a day or 35 units a week if you're a woman 

    Again, alcohol affects the whole body and can play a role in numerous medical conditions. You have a much higher risk of developing alcohol-related health problems. Your body has probably suffered some damage already, even if you’re not yet aware of it.

    Compared to non-drinkers, if you regularly drink above higher-risk levels: 

    • You could be 3-5 times more likely to get cancer of the mouth, neck and throat.
    • You could be 3-10 times more likely to develop liver cirrhosis.
    • Men could have four times the risk of having high blood pressure, and women are at least twice as likely to develop it.
    • You could be twice as likely to have an irregular heartbeat.
    • Women are around 1.5 times as likely to get breast cancer.

    The more you drink above the higher-risk threshold, the greater the risks. So some of the health risks can be even higher than those above. You’re likely to have the same problems as increasing-risk drinkers: feeling tired or depressed, or gaining extra weight.

    You may be sleeping poorly or having sexual problems. And, like increasing-risk drinkers but possibly more so, you’re likely to be in worse physical shape than you would be otherwise, whatever your age or sex. You could also have high blood pressure.

    At these levels, your drinking may make you argumentative, which might damage your relationships with family and friends.

    Read about alcohol support to find out who can help you with problem drinking.

    Page last reviewed: 01/03/2014

    Next review due: 01/03/2016

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    Comments

    The 10 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

    Graff said on 14 June 2013

    Couldn't agree more with Irinia.
    The majority of regular drinkers do it simply to get out of their miserable lives for a moment.
    As a society maybe we need to improve all our lives to enable people to get out of their vicious cycle of medicating misery with even more misery.

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    manchestergirl said on 02 May 2013

    I have been to the doctor on unrelated health matter and full bloods taken now she has advised that my Gamma GT levels are very very high at 148. I am 46 female. I drink white wine and perhaps as a majority of my peers and friends do this on a nightly basis without much thought. She did not treat me with disgust or anything but I was mindful that she thinks I have a serious problem and now this is in my notes. She has asked that I cut back and even abstain from the drink for the next month and if this figure is not reduced then she has said she would refer me for a scan of my liver. I am quite worried and do not want to tell my husband until I have had these further tests. I have not had wine since my diagnosis but I have had a couple of small bottles of beer (just two). Anybody got any comment please?

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    LaviticusSounde said on 07 June 2012

    oops, might have a problem.

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    david4u said on 01 January 2012

    Reading this I did have a problem but now I must act sensibly and I like a drink but now instead of having 3 44oml of 4.5% drinks a day I will cut down to just 1 440ml a day, 12 units a week, thankyou NHS for saving me I,ll be eternally grateful.

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    grotty75 said on 18 November 2011

    I think this information is good however it is not appropriate for the vast majority of drinkers in their 20's and 30's who drink as part of enjoyment on a night out or even a night in.
    Most drinkers I know will drink moderately to heavily but only 1 or 2 times a week which I would imagine is around 30 units of alcohol. Now I would like to see information about the effects on health with this type of behaviour and whether it is worse than drinking regularly through the week. I suspect not as regular drinking i.e. drinking most days/nights is more likely to be habit forming and does not allow your body to recover from the poison. Drinking heavily twice a week say, does this allow the body to recover sufficiently reducing the damage of alcohol? Why isnt this research available and if it is the NHS should surely present it as this is a common behaviour of most drinkers who actually enjoy drinking not just use it to relax or escape.

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    sukhwinderfoss said on 18 February 2011

    yes you are right , I loss my friend , he was big drinker . he has liver problem , B.P problem .. I my side don't use alcohol . thanks

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    thenakedsun said on 12 December 2009

    thanks Irinia.

    I had to lie to people and say I had complications and am on antibiotics to continue with my desire not to drink alcohol again. I agree with everything you have said and liked the way you have said it. If only those in the NHS who agreed with you were given the green light by central government to start supporting US instead of THEM! Them being those that profit from alcohol. The list is endless and range from pharmaceutical companies through to the cigarette companies... for a lot of people drinking is a prerequisite to enjoying a cigarette, smoking would dramatically lose its appeal if it were not joined at the hip with alcohol. Some studies have scientifically backed this up. But this is a casual comment and I don't have the links.... but they are out there.

    Robert

    By the way the lying I don't feel bad about as I feel justified in the fact if I didn't most people would subtly try to force feed me this poison. Three words.
    Control Control Control

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    roo24 said on 17 September 2009

    my mum has been an alcoholic for nearly 35 years, thats 15 years before i was adopted by her and my father. life has been tough as anyone who has lived with an alcoholic will undoutably understand. mum had a massive bleed which caused her to vomit blood and she has been in hospital for nearly 4 months, they have now told us that there is nothing more they can do. she is young, 61, and i am now very scared as i dont want to lose my mum thru somethin she has done to herself. its so hard seeing her lying there so frail having umpteen units of blood given and knowing that there is nothing they can do to make her better. i have persuaded her with rehab but she never belived that she had a problem, now its clear that she did indeed have a very seroius problem

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    beckyvx said on 12 September 2009

    My mums just been diagnosed with liver chhrousis, found out yesterday when she kindly phoned my sister to tell us she actually delivered the crushing blow drunk. our mum has been an alchoholic for as long as I can remember its a way of life now. going to the hospital everytime she over doses or stabs herself. the sad thing is she is due to go into detox next week and then onto rehab but its come to late. love you mum miss you

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    Irinia said on 03 September 2009

    The NHS should seriously consider recommending that alcohol should not be consumed at all, and if it is consumed it should certainly not be consumed on a regular basis.There is not a single person, that I have met, who drinks alcohol on a regular basis, that I can describe as not having "the curse" - i.e. unknowingly being an alcoholic.

    Anyone who has dealt with data using statistics knows very well that data can easily be misinterpreted. It is not difficult to imagine scientists, who may well drink themselves, being mislead into concluding that its 'ok' to drink some alcohol everyday - it is the nature of the beast. Regardless of any research, and speaking only from personal experience, I say that anyone who drinks alcohol on a regular basis (even if they never actually get drunk) will find themselves suffering from: depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behavior, short temper, selfishness, premature aging, inability to plan a trip without including time for consumption of alcohol, and a profound irritation at anyone mentioning that alcohol is bad for you. This assertion is made from very clearly seeing, in these people, the subtle symptoms, visible in appearance and behaviour, that I have learnt to recognize from the personal experience of dealing with a spouse who consumed some alcohol on a regular basis and stopped doing so.

    This personal knowledge leads me to conclude that anyone who drinks alcohol on a regular basis (i.e. every day, rather than only moderately at the occasional party) is unknowingly an alcoholic to some degree and will suffer from the above physical and behavioral symptoms, and besides these others much more serious not externally visible health problems. Anyone who stops consuming alcohol will see their health, and consequently their life, change so dramatically for the better that looking back they will wonder how in the world they could possible have enjoyed any moment of it.

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