Alcohol Use and Your Health
Drinking too much can harm your health. Excessive alcohol use led to more than 140,000 deaths and 3.6 million years of potential life lost (YPLL) each year in the United States from 2015 – 2019, shortening the lives of those who died by an average of 26 years.1 Further, excessive drinking was responsible for 1 in 5 deaths among adults aged 20-49 years.2 The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption in 2010 were estimated at $249 billion, or $2.05 a drink.3
What is a standard drink?
In the United States, a standard drink contains 0.6 ounces (14.0 grams or 1.2 tablespoons) of pure alcohol. Generally, this amount of pure alcohol is found in
- 12-ounces of beer (5% alcohol content).
- 8-ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content).
- 5-ounces of wine (12% alcohol content).
- 1.5-ounces of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey).4
What is excessive drinking?
Excessive drinking includes binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant women or people younger than age 21.
- Binge drinking, the most common form of excessive drinking, is defined as consuming
- For women, 4 or more drinks during a single occasion.
- For men, 5 or more drinks during a single occasion.
- Heavy drinking is defined as consuming
- For women, 8 or more drinks per week.
- For men, 15 or more drinks per week.
Most people who drink excessively are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent.5
What is moderate drinking?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men or 1 drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed.4 The Guidelines also do not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason and that if adults of legal drinking age choose to drink alcoholic beverages, drinking less is better for health than drinking more.4
There are some people who should not drink any alcohol, including those who are:
- Younger than age 21.
- Pregnant or may be pregnant.
- Driving, planning to drive, or participating in other activities requiring skill, coordination, and alertness.
- Taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol.
- Suffering from certain medical conditions.
- Recovering from alcoholism or are unable to control the amount they drink.4
By adhering to the Dietary Guidelines, you can reduce the risk of harm to yourself or others.
Short-Term Health Risks
Excessive alcohol use has immediate effects that increase the risk of many harmful health conditions. These are most often the result of binge drinking and include the following:
- Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns.6,7
- Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.6-10
- Alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that results from high blood alcohol levels.11
- Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.12,13
- Miscarriage and stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women.6,12,14,15
Long-Term Health Risks
Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:
- High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.6,16
- Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.6,17
- Weakening of the immune system, increasing the chances of getting sick.6,16
- Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.6,18
- Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.6,19
- Social problems, including family problems, job-related problems, and unemployment.6,20,21
- Alcohol use disorders, or alcohol dependence.5
By not drinking too much, you can reduce the risk of these short- and long-term health risks.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol-Related Disease Impact Application website. Accessed April 19, 2022.
- Esser MB, Leung G, Sherk A, Bohm MB, Liu Y, Lu H, Naimi TS. Estimated deaths attributable to excessive alcohol use among US adults aged 20 to 64 years, 2015 to 2019. JAMA Netw Open 2022;5:e2239485.
- Sacks JJ, Gonzales KR, Bouchery EE, Tomedi LE, Brewer RD. 2010 National and State Costs of Excessive Alcohol Consumption. Am J Prev Med 2015; 49(5):e73–e79.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2020 – 2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 9th Edition, Washington, DC; 2020.
- Esser MB, Hedden SL, Kanny D, Brewer RD, Gfroerer JC, Naimi TS. Prevalence of Alcohol Dependence Among US Adult Drinkers, 2009–2011. Prev Chronic Dis 2014;11:140329.
- World Health Organization. Global status report on alcohol and health—2018. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 2018.
- Alpert HR, Slater ME, Yoon YH, Chen CM, Winstanley N, Esser MB. Alcohol consumption and 15 causes of fatal injuries: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Am J Prev Med 2022;63:286–300.
- Greenfield LA. Alcohol and Crime: An Analysis of National Data on the Prevalence of Alcohol Involvement in Crime [PDF – 229 KB]. Report prepared for the Assistant Attorney General’s National Symposium on Alcohol Abuse and Crime. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1998.
- 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.
- Abbey A. Alcohol-related sexual assault: A common problem among college students. J Stud Alcohol Suppl 2002;14:118–128.
- Kanny D, Brewer RD, Mesnick JB, Paulozzi LJ, Naimi TS, Lu H. Vital Signs: Alcohol Poisoning Deaths — United States, 2010–2012. MMWR 2015;63:1238-1242.
- Naimi TS, Lipscomb LE, Brewer RD, Colley BG. Binge drinking in the preconception period and the risk of unintended pregnancy: Implications for women and their children. Pediatrics 2003;11(5):1136–1141.
- Wechsler H, Davenport A, Dowdall G, Moeykens B, Castillo S. Health and behavioral consequences of binge drinking in college. JAMA 1994;272(21):1672–1677.
- 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.
- American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on Substance Abuse and Committee on Children with Disabilities. 2000. Fetal alcohol syndrome and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorders. Pediatrics 2000;106:358–361.
- Rehm J, Baliunas D, Borges GL, Graham K, Irving H, Kehoe T, et al. The relation between different dimensions of alcohol consumption and burden of disease: an overview. Addiction. 2010;105(5):817-43.
- International Agency for Research on Cancer. Personal Habits and Indoor Combustions: A Review of Human Carcinogens, Volume 100E 2012. Available from: http://monographs.iarc.fr/ENG/Monographs/vol100E/index.php.
- Miller JW, Naimi TS, Brewer RD, Jones SE. Binge drinking and associated health risk behaviors among high school students. Pediatrics. 2007;119(1):76-85.
- Castaneda R, Sussman N, Westreich L, Levy R, O’Malley M. A review of the effects of moderate alcohol intake on the treatment of anxiety and mood disorders. J Clin Psychiatry 1996;57(5):207–212.
- Booth BM, Feng W. The impact of drinking and drinking consequences on short-term employment outcomes in at-risk drinkers in six southern states. J Behavioral Health Services and Research 2002;29(2):157–166.
- Leonard KE, Rothbard JC. Alcohol and the marriage effect. J Stud Alcohol Suppl 1999;13:139–146.