Advice for women: The risks of drinking too much alcohol

Mark Holmes, an alcohol liaison nurse at Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham, describes the risks associated with drinking for women.

What type of alcohol problems do you see among women?

"At my hospital, we get a lot of women in their 30s and 40s with severe liver disease. Most people will have been drinking heavily (more than 35 units a week) for at least six to 10 years before they end up in hospital with serious problems. A couple of large glasses of wine a day could take you up to 35 units by the end of the week."

What’s wrong with a few drinks each night?

"That depends on how few and how strong the drinks are. Long-term heavy drinking can damage your liver, which needs to function properly to break down alcohol. In extreme cases, alcoholic liver damage ends in cirrhosis, which can lead to complete liver failure and death. Women can't drink as many units of alcohol a week as men without much greater risk of causing harm.

"The problem with liver damage is that there are no warning signs. Often, you don’t know you’ve got it until you’ve got a bad case as there may well be no pain. Liver disease may cause jaundice. This can lead to severe health complications, or even kill you.

"You could also damage your digestive system and develop pancreatitis. Symptoms of the latter include attacks of extreme abdominal pain and vomiting. Alcohol is linked to about 3% of all cancers. It can also contribute to mental health problems, cause skin conditions and raise blood pressure."

How much alcohol is too much?

"If you’re drinking more than 2-3 units on a regular basis, you’re drinking too much and are at risk of harm. (The limit for men is higher; they shouldn't regularly exceed 3-4 units a day.) It really doesn’t take much to reach these limits. Increasingly, drinks have the number of units clearly marked on the bottles or cans."

How do I work out how many units of alcohol I drink?

One UK unit is 10ml (or eight grams) of pure alcohol. This is equal to: 

  • half a pint of beer, lager or cider at 3.5% alcohol by volume (ABV: you can find this on the label)
  •  a single measure (25ml) of spirit, such as whisky, gin, rum or vodka, at 40% ABV
  •  half a standard (175ml) glass of wine at 11.5% ABV

You can find out how many units there are in different types and brands of drinks with the Drinkaware unit calculator.

What if I overdo the alcohol?

"If you do overdo it one night, wait at least 48 hours before drinking any alcohol again. It will give your body time to recover."

How do I know if I have a drink problem?

"Are people making remarks about how much you drink? Do you often get so drunk that you forget what you did the night before? Ever find yourself feeling anxious about getting your next drink or have you started feeling guilty about your drinking? Do you start drinking in the morning? If any of these sound familiar, you may be developing a problem.

"If you need advice, your GP will be able to help and put you in touch with sources of information and advice, or with support groups in your area."

How can I cut down on drinking?

"Try alternating alcoholic drinks with soft ones, or make your drinks ‘long’ with soda, tonic or other non-alcoholic mixers. Pace yourself. Drink more slowly and you won’t feel nearly so rough the next day."

Here are some further tips on cutting down.

Page last reviewed: 09/01/2015

Next review due: 09/01/2017


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