Risks of Alcohol Use: How Much is Too Much?

Published: May 30, 2024
Barbara Young
By Barbara Young, PharmD

Are you aware of associated health and safety risks with drinking alcohol? Some factors that may affect these risks are how much and how fast you drink, your sex, and your current health issues and conditions.

What are the risks of alcohol use?
Consumption of alcohol, particularly more than the recommended amounts, can have immediate effects and long-term can lead or contribute to health problems. Development of alcohol use disorders such as alcohol dependence (alcoholism) and harmful abuse are also a concern.

Diseases related to alcohol use include alcoholic liver disease and pancreatitis. Other conditions impacted by alcohol consumption include diabetes, cardiovascular disease (hypertension), GI problems, infections, mental health issues, and cancer. Studies have also linked excessive alcohol use to an increased risk of dementia. Drinking alcohol can also lead to accidents or intentional injuries.

Women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant should be aware of the risks associated with alcohol use such as increased risk of miscarriage, preterm birth, stillbirth, and sudden infant syndrome (SIDS). Alcohol use during pregnancy can also have behavioral, intellectual, and physical effects on the unborn child.

How does the body process alcohol?
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream from the stomach and then is metabolized (broken down to other substances) in the liver. If alcohol is consumed faster than can be metabolized, it will increase the blood alcohol level in your body.

Women have less water in their bodies than men of equivalent weight which causes increased blood alcohol levels in women from drinking similar amounts of alcohol.

What are the recommended guidelines for alcohol ingestion in healthy adults?
Recommendations from the U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest healthy adults who choose to drink (and do not have any other health-related restrictions for alcohol intake), alcohol-related risks may be minimized, but not eliminated, by limiting intakes to:

For women: 1 drink or less in a day
For men: 2 drinks or less in a day

There is no safe amount or time period during pregnancy to use alcohol. It is also safest to avoid any amount of alcohol when driving a vehicle or operating machinery.

What amounts of alcoholic beverages count as a “drink”?

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (5% alcohol/volume)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol/volume)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (80-proof [40% alcohol/volume])

Be aware that the alcohol content may vary in these categories. Light beer contains 4.3% alcohol/volume, and some craft beers and flavored malt beverages contain 8-9% alcohol/volume. The alcohol content in wines can range from 5 to 16% alcohol/volume.

Always read the label and consider the alcohol content and volume in your drink serving.

What amount of alcohol is of concern for alcohol-related harm and health-related concerns?
Binge or heavy drinking greatly increases the risk of alcohol use disorder (e.g., alcohol dependency or alcoholism), health-related concerns, or the increased risk of accidents. Binge/heavy drinking is defined:

For women: 4 or more drinks on any day/occasion or 8 or more per week
For men: 5 or more drinks on any day/occasion or 15 or more per week

Risks of drinking alcohol vary from person to person. Be sure to ask your doctor about recommendations for alcohol use based on your health. Always check with your pharmacist about drinking alcohol with the medications you are taking.

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