What are the health risks of drinking too much alcohol?

Drinking too much alcohol can cause a variety of health problems, including high blood pressure (hypertension), alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis of the liver. It can also lead to destructive behaviour, such as drink driving.

To prevent developing alcohol-related health problems, the NHS advises not drinking more than your recommended daily amount of alcohol.

You should avoid regularly drinking more than:

  • 3-4 units a day if you're a man
  • 2-3 units a day if you're a woman

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

What's a unit of alcohol?

One unit is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol. Different drinks have different strengths, so it can be difficult to know how many units you've had. Below is a basic guide to the number of alcohol units in some common drinks:

  • a pint of ordinary strength beer, lager or cider = 2 units
  • a pint of strong beer, lager or cider = 3 units
  • a small (125ml) glass of red, white or rosé wine = 1.5 units
  • a standard (175ml) glass of red, white or rosé wine = 2.1 units
  • a large (250ml) glass of red, white or rosé wine = 3 units
  • a 275ml bottle of alcopops = 1.5 units
  • a small (25ml) pub measure of spirits, such as gin, rum, vodka, whisky, tequila or sambuca = 1 unit
  • 50ml of fortified wine, such as sherry or port = 1 unit

Read more about alcohol units and how they're calculated.

It's a good idea to have at least a few alcohol-free days a week. However, don't store up your units and then binge drink at the weekends. Binge drinking is defined as:

  • drinking more than 8 units a day if you're a man
  • drinking more than 6 units a day if you're a woman

Binge drinking can affect your personal safety and put you at risk of developing serious health problems. Read more about the risks of binge drinking.

Alcohol and pregnancy

Pregnant women and women trying for a baby should avoid drinking alcohol. If you do choose to drink, you shouldn't drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week. Don't get drunk if you're pregnant.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises pregnant women to avoid drinking alcohol during the first three months of pregnancy in particular because of the increased risk of miscarriage.

How alcohol affects you

Alcohol can affect people in different ways. It can affect you more quickly if you:

  • are small
  • haven't eaten
  • aren't used to drinking

Alcohol tends to affect women more quickly than men because they're often smaller and their bodies contain less water.

When to get advice

You may have a drinking problem if you:

  • feel your social life revolves around alcohol
  • drink alone or in the morning
  • can't stop drinking once you start

Go to see your GP if you think you have a drinking problem. They'll be able to give you information and advice and, if necessary, refer you for further specialist help and support.

Drinking too much alcohol can put you at risk of conditions such as cirrhosis of the liver and high blood pressure, as well as mental health problems.

Read more about alcohol support and the answers to other questions about lifestyle.

Further information:

Page last reviewed: 29/11/2013

Next review due: 28/11/2015