Frequently Asked Questions
Alcohol affects every organ in the body. It is a central nervous system depressant that is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream. Alcohol is metabolized in the liver by enzymes. However, the liver can only metabolize a small amount of alcohol at a time, leaving the excess alcohol to circulate throughout the body. The intensity of the effect of alcohol on the body is directly related to the amount consumed.
A standard drink is equal to 14.0 grams (0.6 ounces) 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 or a “shot” of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (e.g., gin, rum, vodka, whiskey).
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americansexternal icon,1 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 and 1 drink or less in a day for women, when alcohol is consumed. Drinking less is better for health than drinking more.
Binge drinking is defined as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level to 0.08% or more. This pattern of drinking usually corresponds to 5 or more drinks on a single occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women, generally within about 2 hours.
“Getting drunk” or intoxicated is the result of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. Binge drinking typically results in acute intoxication.
Alcohol intoxication can be harmful for a variety of reasons, including:
- Impaired brain function resulting in poor judgment, reduced reaction time, loss of balance and motor skills, or slurred speech.
- Dilation of blood vessels, causing a feeling of warmth but resulting in rapid loss of body heat.
- Increased risk of certain cancers, stroke, and liver diseases (e.g., cirrhosis), particularly when excessive amounts of alcohol are consumed over extended periods of time.
- Damage to a developing fetus if consumed by pregnant women.
- Increased risk of motor-vehicle traffic crashes, violence, and other injuries.
Coma and death can occur if alcohol is consumed rapidly and in large amounts.
Excessive drinking both in the form of heavy drinking or binge drinking, is associated with numerous health problems,6including
- Chronic diseases such as liver cirrhosis (damage to liver cells); pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas); various cancers, including liver, mouth, throat, larynx (the voice box), and esophagus; high blood pressure; and psychological disorders.
- Unintentional injuries, such as motor-vehicle traffic crashes, falls, drowning, burns, and firearm injuries.
- Violence, such as child maltreatment, homicide, and suicide.
- Harm to a developing fetus if a woman drinks while pregnant, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
- Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- Alcohol use disorders.
There is a strong scientific evidence that drinking alcohol increases the risk for cancer, including cancers of the mouth and throat, liver, breast (in women) and colon and rectum, and for some types of cancer, the risk increases even at low levels of alcohol consumption (less than 1 drink in a day). The evidence indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks, the higher his or her risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. The risk varies by many factors, such as the quantity of alcohol consumed and type of cancer. The Dietary Guidelines for Americansexternal icon recommends that adults who choose to drink do so in moderation – 1 drink or less on a day for women or 2 drinks or less on a day for men. However, emerging evidence suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase the overall risk of death from various causes, such as from several types of cancer and some forms of cardiovascular disease.1
Special Populations and Alcohol
According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americansexternal icon1 some people should not drink alcoholic beverages at all, including:
- If they are pregnant or might be pregnant.
- If they are under the legal age for drinking.
- If they have certain medical conditions or are taking certain medications that can interact with alcohol.
- If they are recovering from an alcohol use disorder or if they are unable to control the amount they drink.
To reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms, the Guidelines recommend 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. 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.1 By following the Dietary Guidelines, you can reduce the risk of harm to yourself or others.
Yes.8,9 Studies have shown that alcohol use by adolescents and young adults increases the risk of both fatal and nonfatal injuries.10-12 Research has also shown that people who use alcohol before age 15 are six times more likely to become alcohol dependent than adults who begin drinking at age 21.13 Other consequences of youth alcohol use include increased risky sexual behaviors, poor school performance, and increased risk of suicide and homicide.14-16
No. There is no known safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy. Women who are pregnant or plan on becoming pregnant should refrain from drinking alcohol.17 Several conditions, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, have been linked to alcohol use during pregnancy. Women of childbearing age should also avoid binge drinking to reduce the risk of unintended pregnancy and potential exposure of a developing fetus to alcohol.
Not drinking alcohol is the safest option for breastfeeding mothers. Generally, moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages by a woman who is lactating (up to 1 standard drink in a day) is not known to be harmful to the infant, especially if the woman waits at least 2 hours after a single drink before nursing or expressing breast milk. Women considering consuming alcohol during lactation should talk to their healthcare provider.1,18
Drinking and Driving
The legal limit for drinking is the alcohol level above which a person is subject to legal penalties (e.g., arrest or loss of a driver’s license).
- Legal limits are measured using either a blood alcohol test or a breathalyzer.
- Legal limits are typically defined by state law, and may vary according to individual characteristics, such as age and occupation.
All states in the United States have adopted 0.08% (80 mg/dL) as the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle for drivers aged 21 years or older (except for Utah, which adopted a 0.05% legal limit in 2018). However, drivers younger than 21 are not allowed to operate a motor vehicle with any level of alcohol in their system.
Note: Legal limits do not define a level below which it is safe to operate a vehicle or engage in some other activity. Impairment due to alcohol use begins to occur at levels well below the legal limit.
Alcohol Use Disorders
No. About 90% of people who drink excessively would not be expected to meet the clinical diagnostic criteria for having a severe alcohol use disorderExternalexternal icon.4 A severe alcohol use disorder, previously known as alcohol dependence or alcoholism, is a chronic disease.5 Some of the signs and symptoms of a severe alcohol use disorder could include:
- Inability to limit drinking.
- Continuing to drink despite personal or professional problems.
- Needing to drink more to get the same effect.
- Wanting a drink so badly you can’t think of anything else.
Consult your personal health care provider if you feel you or someone you know has a drinking problem. Other resources include the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service, available at 1-800-662-HELP. This service can provide you with information about treatment programs in your local community and allow you to speak with someone about alcohol problems.7
- US Department of Agriculture and US Department of Health and Human Services. 2020–2050 Dietary Guidelines for Americansexternal icon. 9th ed. Washington, DC: 2020.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Drunk Driving website. https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drunk-drivingexternal icon. Accessed January 14, 2021.
- National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. NIAAA council approves definition of binge drinkingpdf iconexternal icon [PDF-1.6MB]. NIAAA Newsletter. 2004;3:3.
- 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. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5888/pcd11.140329.
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5)external icon. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheet – Alcohol Use and Your Health website. http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm. Accessed May 30, 2020.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator website. https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/external icon. Accessed Accessed January 14, 2021.
- Bonnie RJ, O’Connell ME, eds.; National Research Council and Institute of Medicine. Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibilityexternal icon. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2004.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheet – Underage Drinking. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/underage-drinking.htm. Accessed January 14, 2021.
- Hingson RW, Heeren T, Jamanka A, Howland J. Age of onset and unintentional injury involvement after drinkingexternal icon. JAMA. 2000;284(12):1527–1533.
- Hingson RW, Heeren T, Winter M, Wechsler H. Magnitude of alcohol-related mortality and morbidity among U.S. college students ages 18–24: Changes from 1998 to 2001external icon. Annu Rev Public Health. 2005;26:259–279.
- Levy DT, Mallonee S, Miller TR, et al. Alcohol involvement in burn, submersion, spinal cord, and brain injuriesexternal icon. Med Sci Monit. 2004;10(1):CR17–CR24.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findingspdf iconexternal icon [PDF-3.2MB]. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2014.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Report to Congress on the Prevention and Reduction of Underage Drinkingexternal icon. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2017.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health: Alcohol-Related Disease Impact (ARDI). https://www.cdc.gov/ARDI. Accessed January 14, 2021.
- Miller JW, Naimi TS, Brewer RD, Jones SE. Binge drinking and associated health risk behaviors among high school studentsexternal icon. Pediatrics. 2007;119:76–85.
- US Department of Health and Human Services. A 2005 Message to Women from the S. Surgeon General: Advisory on Alcohol Use in Pregnancy pdf icon[PDF–72.5 KB]. Washington, DC: US Dept of Health and Human Services; 2005.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breastfeeding and Special Circumstances – Alcohol. https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/vaccinations-medications-drugs/alcohol.html. Accessed March 26, 2021.