'Social drinking': the hidden risks

If you think only alcoholics and binge drinkers are putting their health at risk, think again.

Many people who see themselves as "social drinkers" are at risk of developing long-term health conditions because of the amount they regularly drink.

Most drinkers are unaware that regularly drinking more than 14 units a week can lead to a wide range of long-term health problems, including cancers, strokes and heart attacks.

More than 55% of people questioned in a YouGov poll thought that alcohol only damages your health if you regularly get drunk or binge drink.

The survey of 2,000 adults also found that 83% believed that regularly drinking more than the recommended daily limits didn't put their long-term health at risk.

The survey suggests that 7.5 million people might be unaware of the damage their drinking could be causing.

Low risk drinking advice

To reduce the risk of harming your health if you drink most weeks:

  • men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week
  • spread your drinking over three days or more if you drink as much as 14 units a week

Fourteen units is equivalent to six pints of average strength beer or 10 small glasses of low strength wine.

Read about the risks of drinking too much to find out how your drinking habits may be affecting your health.

Over the limit

More than 9 million people in England drink more than low risk levels. About 15,000 people in England die from alcohol-related causes each year. About 32% of these deaths are from liver disease, 21% from cancer and 17% from cardiovascular illnesses, such as heart disease and strokes.

Typically, longer-term alcohol-related illness or death affect older people who drink more than 14 units a week and consider themselves to be "social drinkers".

Professor Nigel Heaton is a liver transplant consultant at King's College Hospital, London. He says people who believe that drinking above the low risk guidelines is just normal social drinking may be raising their risk of developing alcohol-related illnesses.

"Some people think it's natural to have a bottle of wine a night," he says. "It seems respectable because you're drinking with food and it's not associated with any drunken behaviour or even feeling drunk.

"But if it happens regularly, you may have problems later on. Most of us believe that people with alcoholic liver disease are alcoholics. We often think, 'I'm not an alcoholic so I can't get liver disease'.

"You may not be an alcoholic, but if the overall amount of alcohol you drink regularly exceeds the low risk guidelines, it may still cause serious harm."

Track your drinking

Research suggests many people underestimate how much alcohol they drink. Download a drinks diary (PDF, 697kb) to track your drinking over a week.

If you think you drink too much, there are many ways to cut back. Read some tips on cutting down.

Page last reviewed: 01/03/2014

Next review due: 01/03/2016

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