Alcohol misuse means drinking excessively – more than the recommended limits of alcohol consumption (see below).
This can lead to a number of harmful physical and psychological effects, such as alcohol poisoning, cirrhosis of the liver, inability to work and socialise and destructive behaviours, such as drink-driving and unprotected sex.
Units of alcohol
Alcohol is measured in units. A unit of alcohol is 10ml of pure alcohol, which is about half a pint of normal strength lager or a single measure (25ml) of spirits. A small glass (125ml) of wine contains about one-and-a-half units of alcohol.
Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day, and women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day. ‘Regularly’ means drinking this amount every day or most days of the week.
It’s also recommended that both men and women should have at least two alcohol-free days each week.
Your risk of developing problems increases with the amount of alcohol you drink. The different risk categories are described below.
Lower-risk drinking is regularly drinking 21 units of alcohol a week or less (adult men) or 14 units a week or less (adult women). It’s also known as ‘sensible’ or ‘responsible’ drinking.
Increased-risk drinking is regularly drinking 22-50 units of alcohol a week (adult men), or 15-35 units a week (adult women). It’s also known as ‘hazardous’ drinking.
It’s possible to drink hazardously by binge drinking, even if you’re within your weekly limit. Binge drinking involves drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short space of time – eight units in a day for men and six units in a day for women.
If you’re drinking hazardously, you may not have any alcohol-related health problems at the moment, but you’re increasing your risk of experiencing problems in the future.
Hazardous drinking, particularly binge drinking, also carries additional risks such as:
- being involved in an accident
- becoming involved in an argument or fight
- taking part in risky or illegal behaviour while drunk, such as having unprotected sex or drink-driving
Higher-risk drinking is regularly drinking over 50 units of alcohol a week (adult men) or over 35 units a week (adult women). It’s also known as ‘harmful’ drinking.
Harmful drinking means drinking over the recommended weekly amount of alcohol and experiencing health problems directly related to alcohol.
In some cases, harmful drinking may cause obvious problems such as:
- an alcohol-related accident, such as a head injury
- acute pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Many health problems that occur as a result of harmful drinking don’t cause any symptoms until they reach their most serious stages. These include:
- heart disease
- high blood pressure (hypertension)
- cirrhosis (scarring of the liver)
- some types of cancer, such as mouth cancer and bowel cancer
This means it can be easy to underestimate levels of physical damage caused by harmful drinking.
Harmful drinking can also cause social problems, such as relationship difficulties with your partner or family and friends, as well as problems at work or college.
Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive so it’s possible to become dependent on it.
Being dependent on alcohol means you feel unable to function without it, and drinking becomes an important (or sometimes the most important) factor in your life.
One way to think about whether you’re dependent on alcohol is to ask yourself, ‘do I carry on drinking even though I know it’s harming me or upsetting my family?’