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 of alcohol occur more quickly and last longer in women than men. These differences also make it more likely that drinking will cause long-term health problems in women than men.1
Drinking Levels among Women
- Approximately 46% of adult women report drinking alcohol in the last 30 days.2
- Approximately 12% of adult women report binge drinking 3 times a month, averaging 5 drinks per binge.3
- Most (90%) people who binge drink are not alcoholics or alcohol dependent.4
- About 2.5% of women and 4.5% of men met the diagnostic criteria for alcohol dependence in the past year.4
Reproductive Health Outcomes
- National surveys show that about 1 in 2 women of child-bearing age (i.e., aged 18–44 years) drink alcohol, and 18% of women who drink alcohol in this age group binge drink.5
- Excessive drinking may disrupt the menstrual cycle and increase the risk of infertility.6,7
- 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.8,9
- About 10% of pregnant women drink alcohol.5
- 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.5
- FASD are completely preventable if a woman does not drink while pregnant or while she may become pregnant. It is not safe to drink at any time during pregnancy.5
- Excessive drinking increases a woman’s risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery.7,10
- Women who drink alcohol while pregnant are also 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.11
Other Health Concerns
- Liver Disease: The risk of cirrhosis and other alcohol-related liver diseases is higher for women than for men.12
- 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.13,14
- 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.15
- 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.16-19
- 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.20,21
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.
- Ashley MJ, Olin JS, le Riche WH, Kornaczewski A, Schmidt W, Rankin JG. Morbidity in alcoholics. Evidence for accelerated development of physical disease in womenexternal icon. Arch Intern Med 1977;137(7):883–887.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey data. Atlanta, GA: CDC.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chronic Disease Indicators. Atlanta, GA: CDC.
- 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.
- Tan CH, Denny CH, Cheal NE, Sniezek JE, Kanny D. Alcohol Use and Binge Drinking Among Women of Childbearing Age — United States, 2011–2013. MMWR 2015;64:1042-1046.
- Mendelson JH, Mello NK. Chronic alcohol effects on anterior pituitary and ovarian hormones in healthy womenexternal icon. J Pharmacol Exp Ther 1988;245(2):407–412.
- Wilsnack SC, Klassen AD, Wilsnack RW. Drinking and reproductive dysfunction among women in a 1981 national surveyexternal icon. Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1984;8(5):451–458.
- 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 childrenexternal icon. Pediatrics 2003;111(5):1136–1141.
- 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 careexternal icon. Obstet Gynecol 2001;98(6):1117–1123.
- Kesmodel U, Wisborg K, Olsen SF, Henriksen TB, Sechler NJ. Moderate alcohol intake in pregnancy and the risk of spontaneous abortionexternal icon . Alcohol & Alcoholism 2002;37(1):87–92.
- Iyasu S, Randall LL, Welty TK, et al. Risk factors for sudden infant death syndrome among northern plains Indiansexternal icon. JAMA 2002;288(21):2717–2723.
- Loft S, Olesen KL, Dossing M. Increased susceptibility to liver disease in relation to alcohol consumption in womenexternal icon. Scand J Gastroenterol 1987;22(10):1251–1256.
- Hommer DW, Momenan R, Kaiser E, Rawlings RR. Evidence for a gender-related effect of alcoholism on brain volumesexternal icon. Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:198–204.
- Mann K, Batra A, Gunthner A, Schroth G. Do women develop alcoholic brain damage more readily than menexternal icon? Alcohol Clin Exp Res 1992;16(6):1052–1056.
- 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 menexternal icon. JAMA 1995;274(2):149–154.
- 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 beveragesexternal icon. Lancet Oncol 2007;8:292–293
- Smith-Warner SA, et al. Alcohol and breast cancer in women: A pooled analysis of cohort studiesexternal icon. JAMA 1998;279(7):535–540.
- Thun MJ, et al. Alcohol consumption and mortality among middle-aged and elderly U.S. adultsexternal icon. N Engl J Med 1997;337(24):1705–1714.
- Department of Health and Human Services. Tenth Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Healthpdf iconexternal icon [PDF-264KB]. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; June 2000.
- Mohler-Kuo M, Dowdall GW, Koss M, Wechsler H. Correlates of rape while intoxicated in a national sample of college womenexternal icon. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 2004;65(1):37–45.
- Abbey A. Alcohol-related sexual assault: A common problem among college studentsexternal icon. J Stud Alcohol Suppl 2002;14:118–128.