If you are like many Americans, you may drink alcohol
occasionally. Or, like others, you may drink moderate amounts of alcohol on a more regular
basis. If you are a woman or someone over the age of 65, this means that
you have no more than one drink per day; if you are a man, this means that
you have no more than two drinks per day. Drinking at these levels usually
is not associated with health risks and can help to prevent certain forms
of heart disease.
But did you know that even moderate drinking, under certain circumstances,
is not risk free? And that if you drink at more than moderate levels, you
may be putting yourself at risk for serious problems with your health and
problems with family, friends, and coworkers? This booklet explains some
of the consequences of drinking that you may not have considered.
What Is a Drink?
A standard drink is:
One 12-ounce bottle of beer* or wine cooler
One 5-ounce glass of wine
1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
*Beer ranges considerably in its alcohol content,
with malt liquor being higher in its alcohol content
than most other brewed beverages.
It may surprise you to learn that you don't need to drink much alcohol
before your ability to drive becomes impaired. For example, certain driving
skills--such as steering a car while, at the same time, responding to changes
in traffic--can be impaired by blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) as low
as 0.02 percent. (The BAC refers to the amount of alcohol in the blood.)
A 160-pound man will have a BAC of about 0.04 percent 1 hour after consuming
two 12-ounce beers or two other standard drinks on an empty stomach (see
the box, "What Is a Drink?"). And the more alcohol you consume,
the more impaired your driving skills will be. Although most States set
the BAC limit for adults who drive after drinking at 0.08 to 0.10 percent,
impairment of driving skills begins at much lower levels.
Alcohol interacts negatively with more than 150 medications. For example,
if you are taking antihistamines for a cold or allergy and drink alcohol,
the alcohol will increase the drowsiness that the medication alone can
cause, making driving or operating machinery even more hazardous. And if
you are taking large doses of the painkiller acetaminophen and drinking
alcohol, you are risking serious liver damage. Check with your doctor or
pharmacist before drinking any amount of alcohol if you are taking any
over-the-counter or prescription medications.
If you are a pregnant woman or one who is trying to conceive, you can
prevent alcohol-related birth defects by not drinking alcohol during your
pregnancy. Alcohol can cause a range of birth defects, the most serious
being fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children born with alcohol-related
birth defects can have lifelong learning and behavior problems. Those born
with FAS have physical abnormalities, mental impairment, and behavior problems.
Because scientists do not know exactly how much alcohol it takes to cause
alcohol-related birth defects, it is best not to drink any alcohol during
Some problems, like those mentioned above, can occur after drinking
over a relatively short period of time. But other problems--such as liver
disease, heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and pancreatitis--often
develop more gradually and may become evident only after long-term heavy
drinking. Women may develop alcohol-related health problems after consuming
less alcohol than men do over a shorter period of time. Because alcohol
affects many organs in the body, long-term heavy drinking puts you at risk
for developing serious health problems, some of which are described below.
Alcohol-related liver disease. More than 2 million Americans
suffer from alcohol-related liver disease. Some drinkers develop alcoholic
hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, as a result of long-term heavy
drinking. Its symptoms include fever, jaundice (abnormal yellowing of the
skin, eyeballs, and urine), and abdominal pain. Alcoholic hepatitis can
cause death if drinking continues. If drinking stops, this condition often
is reversible. About 10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop alcoholic
cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. Alcoholic cirrhosis can cause death
if drinking continues. Although cirrhosis is not reversible, if drinking
stops, one's chances of survival improve considerably. Those with cirrhosis
often feel better, and the functioning of their liver may improve, if they
stop drinking. Although liver transplantation may be needed as a last resort,
many people with cirrhosis who abstain from alcohol may never need liver
transplantation. In addition, treatment for the complications of cirrhosis
Heart disease. Moderate drinking can have beneficial effects
on the heart, especially among those at greatest risk for heart attacks,
such as men over the age of 45 and women after menopause. But long-term
heavy drinking increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease,
and some kinds of stroke.
Cancer. Long-term heavy drinking increases the risk of developing
certain forms of cancer, especially cancer of the esophagus, mouth, throat,
and voice box. Women are at slightly increased risk of developing breast
cancer if they drink two or more drinks per day. Drinking may also increase
the risk for developing cancer of the colon and rectum.
Pancreatitis. The pancreas helps to regulate the body's blood
sugar levels by producing insulin. The pancreas also has a role in digesting
the food we eat. Long-term heavy drinking can lead to pancreatitis, or
inflammation of the pancreas. This condition is associated with severe
abdominal pain and weight loss and can be fatal.
If you or someone you know has been drinking heavily, there is a risk
of developing serious health problems. Because some of these health problems
are both reversible and treatable, it is important to see your doctor for
help. Your doctor will be able to advise you about both your health and
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), National
Institutes of Health, supports about 90 percent of the Nation's research
on alcohol use and related consequences. Through this research, NIAAA and
the researchers it supports make an implicit promise--that alcohol research
will yield practical applications that will help those who suffer as a
result of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Today, alcohol researchers are
working on the cutting edge of medical science to answer questions such
Who is at risk for alcohol-related problems?
How does alcohol affect the body, including the brain?
How is the risk for alcoholism inherited?
What are the health benefits and risks of moderate drinking?
What therapies, including medications, show promise for treating alcohol dependence more effectively?
Each new discovery made by alcohol researchers provides a piece of the
answer to the ages old question of how to prevent and treat the alcohol-related
troubles that plague individuals, families, and society. We see the future
of alcohol research both as a challenge and as a reward: A challenge, because
with more answers come more questions, and we still have far to go. A reward,
because the answers we find ultimately will help diminish a public health
threat that has existed for far too long.
If you or someone you know needs help or more information, contact:
Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters 1600 Corporate Landing Parkway
Virginia Beach, VA 23454-5617
Internet address: http://www.al-anon.alateen.org Makes referrals to local Al-Anon groups, which are support groups
for spouses and other significant adults in an alcoholic person's life.
Also makes referrals to Alateen groups, which offer support to children
Locations of Al-Anon or Alateen meetings worldwide can be obtained by calling 1-888-4AL-ANON Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m. (e.s.t.).
Free informational materials can be obtained by calling the toll-free numbers (operating 7 days per week, 24 hours per day):
U.S.: (800) 356-9996
Canada: (800) 714-7498
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) World Services 475 Riverside Drive, 11th Floor
New York, NY 10115
Internet address: http://www.alcoholics-anonymous.org Makes referrals to local AA groups and provides informational materials
on the AA program. Many cities and towns also have a local AA office listed
in the telephone book.
National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) 12 West 21st Street
New York, NY 10010
Internet address: http://www.ncadd.org Provides telephone numbers of local NCADD affiliates (who can provide
information on local treatment resources) and educational materials on
alcoholism via the above toll-free number.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Scientific Communications Branch
6000 Executive Boulevard, Suite 409
Bethesda, MD 20892-7003
Internet address: http://www.niaaa.nih.gov Makes available free publications on all aspects of alcohol abuse
and alcoholism. Many are available in Spanish. Call, write, or search
the World Wide Web site for a list of publications and ordering information.