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.
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 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.
"Regularly" means drinking this amount every day or most days of the week.
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 avoid alcohol altogether. 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. Read more on pregnancy and alcohol.
People who drink should aim to be in the lower-risk category to minimise the health risks.
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.
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.