'Social drinking': the hidden risks

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

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.

    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 the limits advised by the NHS 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 2010 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.

    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.

      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 the recommended daily limits. 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 the recommended daily limits 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 lower-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 lower-risk guidelines, it may still cause serious harm.”

      Track your drinking

      Monitor your drinking with the desktop drinks tracker for iPhone. This calculates the units of alcohol in your drinks, and it helps you work out whether you should cut down.

      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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      The 8 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

      ourjim said on 15 July 2012

      I used to consume between seventy and one hundred units of alcohol a week without any apparent ill effects. However my GP advised me to "cut back a bit". So on the 7th January 2011, I decided not to drink any more. What I cannot understand is that I have never missed drinking or ever craved for any alcohol. Teetotal for eighteen months and it has never bothered me in the slightest. Strange isn't it that some people become addicted and some don't. I wonder if any research has ever been conducted to explain this phenomenon. I used to smoke and that was a different matter altogether. Although I gave up about eleven years ago, it was very difficult and I only managed it with the aid of nicotine gum.

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      tinkerbell2 said on 28 April 2011

      I have accepted the fact that for me personally, alcohol damages my health. By this i mean, drinking moderately still leaves me feeling dehydrated just to the lesser degree of a full on binge drinking saturday night. The obvious difference is that the effects kick in later and harder where the latter is concerned. I have come to the conclusion that obviously every individual is affected differently concerning alcohol. It is my choice now to reassess my alcohol intake on a weekend purely on the fact its making me feel rubbish and taking longer to recover from it's effects. I find many of these campaigns scare-mongering and as an adult i feel resentful. It is not the campaigns facts and figures or the Government increasing alcohol prices that have made me reassess my social drinking, but purely the way i feel and recognise that alcohol is having a bad affect on my health.

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      patrick d said on 26 January 2011

      There is more to life then being hidebound by rules and regulations. I keep to the 21 units per week on alchohol and have always enjoyed a drink. Social drinking is good for me and being relaxed and talking to my friends is far better than staying in and being healthily miserable. You people forget that life needs to be enjoyed. I would rather enjoy myself now after a full working life than be bored and miserable with a care home future.
      Moderation is my by-word in all things, do not tell me that I binge drink as I have never been drunk in the last 40 years, nor have I gone home shouting and throwing up!!!

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      healedonline said on 27 October 2010

      Any drinking habit which interferes with YOUR normal daily routines is damaging, both physically and psychologically. I started as a social drinker and used alcohol to numb the pain of some very difficult thing which happened to me as a youngster.

      I realised that I was addicted to alcohol a year ago 25 years after starting to use drink to numb the emotional pain. I was too ashamed to tell anyone what happened to me all those years ago, so I used an online counsellor and got the help i needed, it was easy to find the help, I just googled counsellors online and chatted to a counsellor online, right here from my front room, he was a very nice chap and knew how to help me.

      I have been alcohol free for 90 days today and will celebrate that with a nice cup of tea. Life is starting to feel worth it.

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      User43444 said on 18 September 2008

      I would say that we must enjoy and live each day as it comes. we never know what is around the corner. My lovely DAD died aged 37 from stomach cancer. I feared i would have the same ending, i`m still here at almost 52. So many people have life issues with drinking alcohol, smoking, high fat diet , lack of exercise, drug abuse, depression, low income, poor housing. The list could be endless. Todays health care is magnificent: ( teaching, advising, advocating, alerting, caring. treatments, (holistic) empathy). So many investigations enabling faster diagnosis & possible treatments. But do the Doctors really listen when first presenterd with THE PROBLEM?

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      stacey said on 11 July 2008

      i would just like to say i have just found out my mom has liver disease, due to alcohol. i wish people would listen more to the warning's instead of just thinking its not bad for you. i nearly lost my mom to it,and my freinds dad hasn't long died due to the affects of alcohol. drink sensibly,if not you will have to face upto the affects.

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      Anonymous said on 15 June 2008

      I was brought up in africa where wine and other alcoholic beverage was common and I use the word beverage as was deemed to be normal. We were taught to accept wine and other drinks to be enjoyed daily as part of our enjoyment and complement to food.
      Now living in the U.K. I have found no reason to stop our standard of life style, my father who introduced his children to this lifestyle is now turning 80 and we as a family enjoy seveveral drinks each evening with no family history of liver problems, my children are all grown up in professional carreers with no effects of alcohol addiction. I wonder at times is this not just another U.K. nanny state scare tactic or do we need to know more facts on an individual basis for those that maybe at higher risk to this disease.


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      Kevin Parker said on 21 May 2008

      I would be grateful if you could advise as to exactly which research was carried out that has led to the NHS claim that social drinking could now be a health risk. A few months ago the sunday telegraph published results of research that showed that drinking 30 - 40 units per week was a LESS health risk than a teetotaller! There is obviously significant amounts of tax payers money being spent on your campaign. Where is the evidence to support you? The telegraph stated that the recommended max levels (28 for men and 21 for women) was a rushed decision by a committee can you please clarify.

      Thank you

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