Health risks of alcohol use
Alcoholism - risks; Alcohol abuse - risks; Alcohol dependence - risks; Risky drinking
Definition of Alcohol Use
Beer, wine, and liquor all contain alcohol. If you are drinking any of these, you are using alcohol. Your drinking patterns may vary, depending on who you are with and what you are doing.
Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can put you at risk for alcohol-related problems if:
- You are a man who has 15 or more drinks a week, or often have 5 or more drinks at a time.
- You are a woman who has 8 or more drinks a week, or often have 4 or more drinks at a time.
One drink is defined as 12 ounces (355 milliliters, mL) of beer, 5 ounces (148 mL) of wine, or a 1 1/2-ounce (44 mL) shot of liquor.
Alcohol Use and Your Health
Long-term excessive alcohol use increases your chances of:
- Bleeding from the stomach or esophagus (the tube the food travels through from your mouth to your stomach).
- Swelling and damage to the pancreas. Your pancreas produces substances your body needs to work well.
- Damage to the liver. When severe, liver damage often leads to death.
- Poor nutrition.
- Cancer of the esophagus, liver, colon, head and neck, breasts, and other areas.
Excessive drinking can also:
- Make it harder to control high blood pressure with medicines if you already have high blood pressure.
- Lead to heart problems in some people.
Alcohol can affect your thinking and judgment each time you drink. Long-term excessive alcohol use damages brain cells. This can lead to lasting damage to your memory, thinking, and the way you behave.
Damage to nerves from alcohol use can cause many problems, including:
- Numbness or a painful "pins and needles" feeling in your arms or legs.
- Problems with erections in men.
- Leaking urine or having a hard time passing urine.
Drinking during pregnancy can harm the growing baby. Severe birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) may occur.
How Alcohol Use Can Affect Your Life
People often drink to make themselves feel better or to block feelings of sadness, depression, nervousness, or worry. But alcohol can:
- Make these problems worse over time.
- Cause sleep problems or make them worse.
- Increase the risk for suicide.
Families are often affected when someone in the home uses alcohol. Violence and conflict in the home is much more likely when a family member is abusing alcohol. Children who grow up in a home where alcohol abuse is present are more likely to:
- Do poorly in school.
- Be depressed and have problems with anxiety and low self-esteem.
- Have marriages that end in divorce.
Drinking too much alcohol even once can harm you or others. It can lead to any of the following:
- Car accidents
- Risky sex habits, which may lead to unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Falls, drowning, and other accidents
- Violence, sexual assault or rape, and homicide
What You Can Do
First, ask yourself what type of drinker you are?
Even if you are a responsible drinker, drinking too much just once can be harmful.
Be aware of your drinking patterns. Learn ways to cut back on drinking.
If you cannot control your drinking or if your drinking is becoming harmful to yourself or others, seek help from:
- Your health care provider
- Support and self-help groups for people who have drinking problems
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Fact sheets: alcohol use and your health.
Moyer VA; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening and behavioral counseling interventions in primary care to reduce alcohol misuse: U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommendation statement. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(3):210-218. PMID: 23698791
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Alcohol use disorder.
O'Connor PG. Alcohol use disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 33.
Sherin K, Seikel S, Hale S. Alcohol use disorders. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 48.
Last reviewed on: 1/14/2018
Reviewed by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.