Reviewed by Dr Sameer Sanghvi
While some people can drink in moderation without it becoming a problem, alcohol can be harmful to your physical and mental well-being.
It is estimated that 10.8 million adults in England drink at levels that pose some risk to their health, and up to 1.6 million adults have some level of alcohol dependence. Alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for death, ill-health and disability among 15-49 year olds in the UK. In 2018 there was over 7500 alcohol-specific deaths in the UK.
Harmful drinking can have wide-ranging effects on individuals, their family, friends and the local community.
What is alcohol misuse?
Alcohol misuse is a way of drinking that becomes harmful. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), harmful drinking is a pattern of alcohol consumption that causes physical and/or psychological problems.
Both men and women are advised to not drink more than 14 units of alcohol each week, and to spread this consumption evenly over at least 3 days.
What counts as a unit of alcohol?
It can sometimes be confusing to decipher what is a unit of alcohol, with different glass, bottle or can sizes.
Technically speaking a unit of alcohol is 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol. This equates to either a half pint of low to normal strength beer or cider, or a single shot (25ml) of a spirit (provided the alcohol content of the spirit is lower than 40%). To put it simply a unit of alcohol is half a pint of say, Fosters, or a single gin and tonic.
A 125ml glass of wine (which is a small in the majority of pubs, bars and restaurants) would count as 1.5 units of alcohol. Find out more about alcohol units
How can I tell if I’m drinking too much?
If you are drinking above 14 units of alcohol each week, you could be putting your health at risk and misusing alcohol. If you need help calculating units of alcohol you consume in an average week, Alcohol Change has a unit calculator which you can use on their website.
Drinking too much could start to have an impact on your work and social life, i.e. having to take time off to recover from hangovers or forgetting plans you’ve made to see friends and family. If you think you might be misusing alcohol you might start to think you need to cut down. Others may have commented on your drinking, you might feel guilty about your alcohol intake and it could be that you drink in the mornings to get rid of your hangover.
How will drinking too much affect my health?
As previously mentioned, misuse of alcohol can have impacts both on your physical and mental health, short and long term. Alcohol is a ‘casual’ factor in more than 60 medical conditions, including mouth, throat, stomach, liver and breast cancers, high blood pressure, cirrhosis of the liver, and depression.
Short term health risks of alcohol misuse
- Alcohol poisoning
- Unprotected sex while under the influence could lead to unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Being a victim of violence
- Becoming violent towards others and putting their health at risk
- Accidents while drunk could lead to injury, which in some cases could be serious
- Not remember what happened while drunk
While not a health risk per say, losing possessions such as your keys, wallet and phone, while under the influence could put your safety at risk.
Continued alcohol misuse can increase your chances of a variety of serious health conditions, these include:
- heart disease
- liver disease
- liver, bowel, mouth, breast cancers
- erectile dysfunction
- premature ejaculation
Long-term misuse of alcohol can also disrupt relationships, employment and in some cases lead to divorce, domestic abuse, financial problems and even homelessness.
Depending on alcohol (known as alcoholism) is when a person loses their ability to control their drinking and has an overactive desire to drink. Dependent drinkers build up a tolerance to alcohol and can drink at levels so high that the same consumptions could kill non-dependent drinkers.
If a dependent drinker cuts down suddenly or stops drinking all together, they are likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can be anything from tremors and sweating to hallucinations, anxiety and depression. If over time a person withdraws from alcohol more than once, the severity of these symptoms can get worse and this is called kindling.
Where can I get help with alcohol misuse?
There are treatments, such as detoxification and counselling, that are available to help with alcohol misuse. However, before getting treatment, the first step for anyone who thinks they might be misusing alcohol, or is worried about someone else, is to seek help.
The first port of call for help with alcohol misuse could be seeing your GP, as they will be able to discuss local services available. You can search for alcohol addiction services local to you on the NHS website, using your postcode.