Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies



The long-term health risks of drinking alcohol

The short-term effects of drinking alcohol are usually obvious. However, if you regularly drink too much alcohol, you can be putting your long-term health at risk. There can be hidden harmful effects of drinking alcohol that may not become apparent until years later.

Long-term effects of alcohol
If you regularly drink too much alcohol, you can be putting your long-term health at risk


  • Alcohol and cancer Alcohol and cancer

    Drinking as little as three units of alcohol a day increases your risk of developing many types of cancer, including cancers of the mouth, throat, oesophagus (the pipe that goes from your mouth to your stomach), liver, breast and bowel.

    Key facts

    • Evidence indicates that alcohol is linked to 12,500 cases of cancer in the UK each year.
    • If you smoke and drink, you’re up to 50 times more likely to get some types of cancer than someone who never smokes or drinks alcohol.
    • All types of alcoholic drinks increase the risk of cancer, even red wine. It’s the alcohol that causes damage, not the type of drink it’s in.

    Bupa Health Assessment: Liver check

    If you are concerned about liver disease, Bupa can help you get a diagnosis.

  • Alcohol the heart and circulation Alcohol the heart and circulation

    Regularly drinking too much alcohol damages your heart and increases your risk of developing heart disease and stroke. Damage to your heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) can cause it to pump blood around your body less effectively. It can also lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

    Key facts

    • Men who regularly drink more than eight units of alcohol a day (double the recommended amount) nearly double their risk of coronary heart disease, are four times more likely to have high blood pressure and double their risk of stroke.
    • Women who regularly drink more than six units of alcohol a day (double the recommended amount) are also slightly more likely to develop coronary heart disease, double their risk of high blood pressure and are four times more likely to have a stroke.
  • Alcohol and your liver Alcohol and your liver

    Alcohol damages your liver. Your liver is the largest organ in your body and one of its many functions is to filter and clean your blood. It takes about one hour for your liver to break down one unit of alcohol. If you regularly drink too much alcohol, you are at risk of developing a range of alcoholic liver diseases including fatty liver disease, hepatitis and alcohol-induced cirrhosis (fibrosis or scarring of your liver). If you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may recover. However, continuing to drink when your liver is damaged can lead to complete liver failure.

    Key facts

    • One in three adults in the UK drinks enough alcohol to be at risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease.
    • The process is silent, but when liver disease has developed, the symptoms come on suddenly and it can be life-threatening.
    • In 2010, alcohol-related liver diseases were responsible for over six out of 10 alcohol-related deaths in the UK.
    • If you have liver cirrhosis, you’re more likely to develop liver cancer.
  • Worried about liver disease?

    Get a picture of your current health and potential future health risks with a Bupa health assessment. Find out more today.

  • Alcohol and your pancreas Alcohol and your pancreas

    Alcohol damages your pancreas. Your pancreas is an organ that lies behind your stomach and produces digestive enzymes which help to break down fatty food, as well as insulin, which helps control blood sugar. If you drink too much alcohol, it can lead to acute or chronic pancreatitis. With acute pancreatitis, your pancreas becomes inflamed over a short period of time. Chronic pancreatitis is when your pancreas continues to be inflamed over a long period of time, and the damage may be permanent.

    Key facts

    • One in five people who have acute pancreatitis have a severe form and the condition causes 950 deaths every year in the UK.
    • Around seven out of 10 people who have chronic pancreatitis are heavy drinkers who drink long-term.
    • One in three people who have chronic pancreatitis will develop diabetes. This is because your damaged pancreas can no longer make insulin.
  • Alcohol, sex and reproduction Alcohol, sex and reproduction

    Regularly drinking more than the daily recommended amount is known to affect fertility in both men and women.

    Key facts

    • In women, alcohol can disrupt menstrual cycles and ovulation which makes it harder to conceive.
    • In men, alcohol can reduce testosterone levels and this can cause loss of sexual desire and affect sperm production. Alcohol also affects the nervous system, making it difficult for men to achieve or maintain an erection.
  • Alcohol and your mental health Alcohol and your mental health

    Drinking heavily over a long time can severely affect your mental health. It can increase anxiety and cause depression. It’s also associated with risk-taking behaviour, personality disorders, schizophrenia and suicide.

    Key facts

    • Alcohol alters the chemistry in your brain and increases your risk of depression.
    • After a few weeks of cutting out alcohol, you’re likely to feel less depressed.
  • Alcohol and your nervous system Alcohol and your nervous system

    Regular heavy alcohol use can lead to nerve and brain damage, resulting in memory problems, dementia and damage to small nerve endings.

    Key facts

    • Regular heavy alcohol use can cause a lack of vitamin B1 (thiamine) which can, if left untreated, lead to permanent memory loss.
    • Some research has shown that heavy drinking over time may cause damage to your brain, which can cause problems with learning, thinking and problem solving. These effects may to some extent be reversible if you stop drinking.

    It’s not possible to be precise about how much is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines, however, recommend not regularly drinking more than three or four units a day for men, and two or three units a day for women. Although ‘Regularly’ means every day or most days of the week, it’s a good idea to have at least two alcohol-free days a week so you don’t go over the limits. So over a week, men shouldn’t have more than 21 units and women shouldn’t have more than 14 units.

    This doesn’t mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. A drinking binge is generally defined as drinking double the daily recommended units in one session.

    If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to talk to someone. Talking to a close friend, a support group or your GP can help you understand your drinking habits and find ways to cut down how much you drink.

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Alcohol and cancer prevention. World Cancer Research Fund., published January 2012
    • Alcohol and cancer. CancerHelp UK (Cancer Research UK)., accessed 24 October 2012
    • Parkin DM, Boyd L, Darby SC, et al. The fraction of cancer attributable to lifestyle and environmental factors in the UK in 2010. British Journal of Cancer (BJC), 2011; 105(2). doi:10.1038/bjc.2011.474
    • Safe. Sensible. Social. The next steps in the national alcohol strategy. Department of Health. June 2007.
    • Alcohol and heart disease. British Heart Foundation., accessed 24 October 2012
    • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy. eMedicine., published 20 June 2011
    • Beyond hangovers – understanding alcohol's impact on your health. National Institute on alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. May 2011.
    • Frequently asked questions. Arrhythmia Alliance., accessed 3 December 2012
    • Alcohol and heart disease. Drinkaware., published 18 September 2012
    • Alcohol and liver disease. Drinkaware., published 4 September 2012
    • Alcohol. The British Liver Trust., published January 2010
    • A brief summary of the liver's functions. The British Liver Trust., accessed 9 November 2012
    • Alcohol-related deaths in the UK 2010. Office for National Statistics., published 26 January 2012
    • Alcohol and pancreatitis. Drinkaware., published 18 September 2012
    • Pancreatic cancer risks and causes. Cancer Help. Cancer Research., published 1 June 2012
    • Alcohol and reproduction. Drinkaware., published 18 September 2012
    • Alcohol and depression. Royal College of Psychiatrists., published October 2010
    • Alcohol. Mental Health foundation., accessed 24 October 2012
    • Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health. Mental Health Foundation. 2006.
    • The impact of alcohol on health. Alcohol Concern., published December 2010
    • Alcohol guidelines. House of Commons Science and Technology Committee,, published 7 December 2011


  • Has our information helped you? Tell us what you think about this page

    We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question
  • Related information Related information

  • Tools and calculators Tools and calculators

  • Author information Author information

    Produced by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, December 2012.

    Let us know what you think using our short feedback form
    Ask us a question

About our health information

At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.

  • Information Standard

    We are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
    Information standard logo
  • HONcode

    This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information.
    HON code logo

What our readers say about us

But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.

Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.

It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.

Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.

Our core principles

All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.

An image showing or editorial principals

                  Click to open full-size image

The ‘3Rs’ encompass everything we believe good health information should be. From tweets to in-depth reports, videos to quizzes, every piece of content we produce has these as its foundation.


In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.


We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.


We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.

Our accreditation

Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.

  • The Information Standard certification scheme

    You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.

    It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.

    Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.

  • Plain English Campaign

    Our website is approved by the Plain English Campaign and carries their Crystal Mark for clear information. In 2010, we won the award for best website.

    Website approved by Plain English Campaign.

  • British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards

    We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.

Contact us

If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: Or you can write to us:

Health Content Team
Bupa House
15-19 Bloomsbury Way

Find out more Close

Legal disclaimer

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the 'About our health information' section.

^ We may record or monitor our calls.