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Fact Sheets - Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women's Health

Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health

Although men are more likely to drink alcohol and drink in larger amounts, gender differences in body structure and chemistry cause women to absorb more alcohol, and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies (i.e., to metabolize it). In other words, upon drinking equal amounts, women have higher alcohol levels in their blood than men, and the immediate effects occur more quickly and last longer. These differences also make women more vulnerable to alcohol’s long-term effects on their health.1

Reproductive Health

  • National surveys show that about 1 in 2 women of child-bearing age (i.e., aged 18–44 years) use alcohol, and 15% of women who drink alcohol in this age group binge drink.2
  • About 7.6% of pregnant women used alcohol.2
  • Excessive drinking may disrupt menstrual cycling and increase the risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery.3, 4
  • Women who binge drink are more likely to have unprotected sex and multiple sex partners. These activities increase the risks of unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.5,6

Alcohol and Pregnancy

  • Women who drink alcohol while pregnant increase their risk of having a baby with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). The most severe form is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), which causes mental retardation and birth defects.
  • FASD are completely preventable if a woman does not drink while pregnant or while she may become pregnant.
  • Studies have shown that about 1 of 20 pregnant women drank excessively before finding out they were pregnant.7 No amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. For women who drink during pregnancy, stopping as soon as possible may lower the risk of having a child with physical, mental, or emotional problems.
  • Research suggests that women who drink alcohol while pregnant are more likely to have a baby die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). This risk substantially increases if a woman binge drinks during her first trimester of pregnancy.8
  • The risk of miscarriage is also increased if a woman drinks excessively during her first trimester of pregnancy.9

Other Health Concerns

  • Liver Disease: The risk of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher for women than for men.10
  • Impact on the Brain: Excessive drinking may result in memory loss and shrinkage of the brain. Research suggests that women are more vulnerable than men to the brain damaging effects of excessive alcohol use, and the damage tends to appear with shorter periods of excessive drinking for women than for men.11,12
  • Impact on the Heart: Studies have shown that women who drink excessively are at increased risk for damage to the heart muscle than men even for women drinking at lower levels.13
  • Cancer: Alcohol consumption increases the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, colon, and breast among women. The risk of breast cancer increases as alcohol use increases.14-17
  • Sexual Assault: Binge drinking is a risk factor for sexual assault, especially among young women in college settings. Each year, about 1 in 20 college women are sexually assaulted. Research suggests that there is an increase in the risk of rape or sexual assault when both the attacker and victim have used alcohol prior to the attack.18, 19

There are a number of health conditions affected by excessive alcohol use that affect both women and men. Some additional conditions are covered in the Alcohol Use and Your Health Fact Sheet.


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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol use and binge drinking among women of childbearing age – United States, 2006-2010. MMWR 2012;61:534-538.
  3. Mendelson JH, Mello NK. Chronic alcohol effects on anterior pituitary and ovarian hormones in healthy women. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 1988;245(2):407–412.
  4. Wilsnack SC, Klassen AD, Wilsnack RW. Drinking and reproductive dysfunction among women in a 1981 national survey. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1984;8(5):451–458.
  5. Naimi TS, Lipscomb LE, Brewer RD, Gilbert BC. Binge drinking in the preconception period and the risk of unintended pregnancy: Implications for women and their children. Pediatrics 2003;111(5):1136–1141.
  6. Thomas AG, Brodine SK, Shaffer R, Shafer MA, Boyer CB, Putnam S, et al. Chlamydial infection and unplanned pregnancy in women with ready access to health care. Obstet Gynecol 2001;98(6):1117–1123.
  7. Floyd RL, Decoufle P, Hungerford DW. Alcohol use prior to pregnancy recognition. Am J Prev Med 1999;17(2):101–107.
  8. Iyasu S, Randall LL, Welty TK, et al. Risk factors for sudden infant death syndrome among northern plains Indians. JAMA 2002;288(21):2717–2723.
  9. Kesmodel U, Wisborg K, Olsen SF, Henriksen TB, Sechler NJ. Moderate alcohol intake in pregnancy and the risk of spontaneous abortion  . Alcohol & Alcoholism 2002;37(1):87–92.
  10. Loft S, Olesen KL, Dossing M. Increased susceptibility to liver disease in relation to alcohol consumption in women. Scand J Gastroenterol 1987;22(10):1251–1256.
  11. Hommer DW, Momenan R, Kaiser E, Rawlings RR. Evidence for a gender-related effect of alcoholism on brain volumes. Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:198–204.
  12. Mann K, Batra A, Gunthner A, Schroth G. Do women develop alcoholic brain damage more readily than men? Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1992;16(6):1052–1056.
  13. Urbano-Marquez A, Estruch R, Fernandez-Sola J, Nicola JM, Pare JC, Rubin E. The greater risk of alcoholic cardiomyopathy and myopathy in women compared with men. JAMA 1995;274(2):149–154.
  14. Baan R, Straif K, Grosse Y, Secretan B, et al. on behalf of the WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. Carcinogenicity of alcoholic beverages. Lancet Oncol 2007;8:292–293
  15. Smith-Warner SA, et al. Alcohol and breast cancer in women: A pooled analysis of cohort studies. JAMA 1998;279(7):535–540.
  16. Thun MJ, et al. Alcohol consumption and mortality among middle-aged and elderly U.S. adults. N Engl J Med 1997;337(24):1705–1714.
  17. Department of Health and Human Services. Tenth Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health [PDF-264KB]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; June 2000.
  18. Mohler-Kuo M, Dowdall GW, Koss M, Wechsler H. Correlates of rape while intoxicated in a national sample of college women. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 2004;65(1):37–45.
  19. Abbey A. Alcohol-related sexual assault: A common problem among college students. J Stud Alcohol Suppl 2002;14:118–128.