Health risks of drinking alcohol

Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
Next review due May 2021

Most people enjoy having a drink from time to time, but if you regularly drink too much or binge drink, you might be putting your health at serious risk. Here, we look at some of the effects alcohol can have on your health and wellbeing.


A group of friends clink their drinks over a dinner table

Short-term effects

When you drink alcohol, it quickly enters your blood stream after being absorbed by your stomach and small intestine. The alcohol then circulates around your body and slows down activity, including in the brain. In the short-term, this may affect your:

  • vision and hearing
  • speech and coordination
  • memory
  • ability to react quickly to situations – for example, when driving

Alcohol can affect your judgement and self-control and make you act differently to how you normally would. You might not make the best decisions and take risks, such as having unprotected sex.

The short-term effects of alcohol can also increase your risk of injuries like cuts, bruises, sprains and broken bones.

After drinking, you'll feel the effects of alcohol on your body in the form of a hangover. Typical symptoms include:

  • headache
  • feeling thirsty
  • feeling or being sick
  • feeling sensitive to bright lights
  • tummy pain
  • feeling exhausted and fatigued
  • feeling sweaty and shaky

You may not be able to remember much as alcohol can affect your memory too.

Did you know?

  • There are lots of hangover cure myths, but the only real ‘cure’ for a hangover is time. Hangover symptoms usually peak when there’s no more alcohol left in your body, but can last for 24 hours after this.

Alcohol and your mental health

Drinking heavily over a long time can affect your mental health. If you drink regularly, it can become addictive and you might find that you experience cravings and find it difficult to go without a drink.

Alcohol also alters the chemistry in your brain and can increase your risk of getting anxiety and depression, and feeling suicidal.

If you’re a heavy drinker, stopping suddenly can cause hallucinations. You may see, hear or feel things that don’t exist. In some people who drink very heavily for many years, a mental health condition called alcoholic psychosis can develop. This is where the person can become paranoid and experience hallucinations.

Did you know?

  • If you regularly drink too much, and have depression or anxiety, stopping can help to improve your symptoms.

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Alcohol and your nervous system

Regularly drinking too much alcohol can damage nerves, which carry information between your body and brain, and different parts of the brain. This can lead to problems with memory (dementia), balance and coordination, and how sensations, including pain are felt around your body.

If you have a drinking problem, you may be at risk of developing a condition called Wernicke's encephalopathy. Physical symptoms include problems with moving your eyes, vision and muscle coordination. You may find it difficult to walk and feel unsteady. Other symptoms include finding it hard to concentrate, lacking interest and feeling confused.

Without proper treatment, Wernicke's encephalopathy can develop into a condition called Korsakoff's psychosis. This is where the person has trouble with disorientation and memory, including problems remembering and creating new memories.

These conditions happen when drinking too much alcohol deprives your brain of vitamin B1 (also called thiamine) and causes damage. You may lack vitamin B1 because you’re not getting enough through the foods you eat, or because alcohol is affecting the way it’s absorbed and used by your body.

Alcohol and your liver

While alcohol affects almost all of your body systems, your liver is most affected. This is because the liver is where most of the alcohol you drink is processed. When alcohol is broken down, toxic chemicals are produced, which can damage your liver. After a while these chemicals are converted into less toxic substances that leave your body.

How long this takes varies from one person to another. It depends on lots of different things, such as your weight, the size of your liver and even your genes. But in general, it usually takes around one hour to remove a unit of alcohol from your body.

If you drink lots of alcohol or too quickly, these toxic chemicals can build up, and your liver has to work harder to get rid of them.

Over time, regularly drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of getting alcohol-related liver disease. In the early stages of liver damage, you might not have any symptoms. But if the damage continues to get worse symptoms may develop and your liver may eventually be at risk of failing. Cirrhosis is usually the final stage of liver damage that can be caused by drinking too much alcohol. You can read more about the stages of liver damage on our Alcohol-related cirrhosis page.

The good news is; if you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may well recover.

See our Other helpful websites section below for information and support on stopping drinking.

Did you know?

  • In 2015, around seven in every 10 people in England who died from the effects of alcohol had alcoholic liver disease.
  • Women who regularly drink are more at risk of developing liver disease than men because their bodies aren't able to process alcohol as well.

Alcohol and your heart and circulation

When you drink alcohol, your heart begins to beat faster.

If you regularly drink too much alcohol, it can raise your blood pressure too. Having high blood pressure puts strain on your heart and blood vessels and can increase your risk of getting heart disease or having a stroke. Your heart muscle can become damaged, and drinking too much can also lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

Some evidence has shown that drinking a small amount of alcohol (rather than abstaining completely) may benefit your heart health. It’s thought to reduce the risk of some heart problems for a select group of people – but doctors can’t be completely sure. In general, the risks of drinking alcohol outweigh any benefit. If you do decide to drink, remember to drink sensibly.

Did you know?

  • In 2015, half of all admissions to hospital in England for cardiovascular disease were linked to alcohol.

Alcohol and cancer

Drinking alcohol can increase you chance of getting certain cancers. This includes cancers of the:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • voice box (larynx)
  • gullet (oesophagus)
  • large bowel (intestine)
  • liver
  • breast

Doctors think it probably increases your chance of getting pancreatic cancer too.

Not everyone who drinks alcohol gets cancer, but we know that drinking even a small amount can increase your risk. What’s more is that the more you drink, the greater your risk.

It’s important to know that all types of alcoholic drink increase the risk of cancer, even red wine. It’s not the drink, but the alcohol itself that causes damage.

Did you know?

  • At the last count, alcohol was linked to just under 92,000 hospital admissions for cancer in England alone.

Alcohol and your digestive system

Alcohol irritates your stomach. It increases the amount of acid your stomach produces, which can cause the lining of your stomach to become inflamed. This is known as gastritis. It can cause reflux – when acid in your stomach travels up into your gullet, causing a burning sensation. It can also make you sick.

Alcohol can also damage your pancreas. If you drink too much, it can lead to acute (short-lasting) or chronic (long-lasting) pancreatitis.

Drinking alcohol can also affect how your body uses and processes nutrients.

Did you know?

  • Alcohol is the most common cause of pancreatitis worldwide.

Alcohol and your fertility

When it comes to fertility, both men and women can be affected by drinking too much alcohol. For women, alcohol decreases the chance of conceiving, and can also affect how well infertility treatments work.

Although you may think drinking moderate levels of alcohol increases sexual desire, too much can be a problem. In men, excessive drinking can lead to a decrease in libido and can affect their ability to get an erection. Regularly drinking too much alcohol affects other aspects of male fertility, such as sperm quality too.

Did you know?

  • In women, it’s thought that alcohol can affect fertility by causing changes in ovulation and the menstrual cycle. In men, alcohol can reduce sperm production.

Drinking safely

It’s not possible to be precise about how much is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines recommend that, over a week, it is safest not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol. This is the same for both men and women.

It’s a good idea to have some alcohol-free days each week to help you stay under this limit.

This doesn’t mean you can save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. If you drink too much in a short space of time, the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream can become dangerously high. You may get alcohol poisoning and need to go to hospital.

Find out how much you’re drinking using an alcohol calculator.

If you’re struggling to keep within your limits, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Talk to a close friend or find a local support group. Often you don’t need to be referred by your GP to access support services. But you can talk to your GP about your drinking habits if you feel you need to. They may be able to help you understand them better and find ways to cut down.

Our handy infographic below helps you understand how many units of alcohol are in your drink.

Bupa's units of alcohol in a drink PDF opens in a new window (1.3 MB)

Bupa's units of alcohol in a drink

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  • Reviewed by Laura Blanks, Specialist Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, May 2018
    Expert reviewer Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner
    Next review due May 2021