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Health risks of drinking alcohol


Expert reviewer Dr Jo Byfleet, Bupa Clinics GP and Physician in Charge
Next review due September 2023

Many 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.

You’ll also find information about how to drink safely and advice on cutting down or stopping drinking alcohol.

A group of friends clink their drinks over a dinner table

Short-term effects

When you drink alcohol, it quickly enters your bloodstream after being absorbed by your stomach and small intestine. The level of alcohol in your blood is most likely to be at its highest about an hour after you have a drink. But it may take longer to reach this level if you’re eating too. Alcohol is mainly broken down in your liver. In general, it usually takes your body around one hour to remove a unit of alcohol. But these timings vary between people, depending on things like your size, how much food you’ve eaten and how well your liver works. If you’re female, it will take your body longer to process and remove alcohol than if you’re male.

Many parts of your body can be affected by alcohol but the short-term effects are mainly caused by the way alcohol affects your brain. The more alcohol you drink, the stronger the short-term effects of alcohol will be. These include:

  • slurred speech
  • unsteadiness and lack of coordination
  • being sick
  • reduced ability to react quickly to situations – for example, when driving
  • feeling sleepy and even passing out

Alcohol can affect your judgement and self-control and make you act differently from how you normally would. You might not make the best decisions and may take risks you wouldn’t ordinarily take, such as having unprotected sex or getting into fights.

The short-term effects of alcohol can also increase your risk of injuries, accidents, drowning and self-harm

Hangovers

If you’ve been drinking alcohol, you may feel the effects on your body afterwards in the form of a hangover. Hangover symptoms usually peak when there’s no more alcohol left in your body, but can last for 24 hours after this. Typical symptoms include:

  • headache
  • feeling thirsty
  • feeling sick
  • feeling sensitive to bright lights and loud sounds
  • tummy pain
  • feeling really tired
  • feeling sweaty and shaky

Your memory can also be affected by alcohol.

There are lots of hangover cure myths, but the only real ‘cure’ for a hangover is time.

Alcohol and your mental health

Drinking heavily over a long time can affect your mental health. If you have mental health problems such as stress, anxiety or depression, you may turn to alcohol to relieve your symptoms. But alcohol also alters the chemistry in your brain and can increase your risk of getting anxiety and depression, and feeling suicidal. If you have depression or anxiety, stopping regular drinking can help to improve your symptoms.

If you drink regularly, in time you may become dependent on alcohol. You may experience cravings and find it difficult to go without a drink, even when you can see it’s affecting your life.

Extreme levels of drinking can sometimes cause a mental health condition called alcohol-related psychosis. This is where the person experiences hallucinations and delusions when they’re intoxicated or when they suddenly stop drinking.

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Alcohol and your nervous system

Regularly drinking too much alcohol can damage your nerves, and affect the levels of messenger chemicals (neurotransmitters) in your brain. This can lead to problems with memory (dementia), eyesight, balance and coordination, and how sensations including pain are felt around your body.

If you’re a heavy drinker, 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, lack of interest and feeling confused.

Without proper treatment, Wernicke's encephalopathy can develop into a condition called Korsakoff's psychosis. If you have this condition, you may experience problems remembering and creating new memories.

Alcohol and your liver

Drinking too much alcohol is the most common cause of liver damage. This is because your liver is where most of the alcohol you drink is processed. When alcohol is broken down, toxic chemicals are produced and can damage your liver.

Alcohol-related liver damage may include fat building up in your liver cells (‘fatty liver’), inflammation and scarring. In the early stages of alcohol-related 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 a serious late stage of alcohol-related liver damage.

The good news is that if you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may well recover. And even if you have liver cirrhosis, stopping drinking can improve your health.

Alcohol and your heart and circulation

If you regularly drink too much alcohol, it can cause problems for your heart and circulation. You may develop high blood pressure, which puts strain on your heart increases your risk of getting heart disease or having a stroke. Alcohol can also damage your heart muscle, and drinking too much can lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia).

Drinking a lot of alcohol regularly can make you gain weight, and being overweight or obese increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems. Alcohol contains almost as many calories as fat, and many alcoholic drinks are high in sugar too.

It may be that drinking a small amount of alcohol (rather than abstaining completely) benefits your heart health. It’s thought to reduce the risk of some heart problems for a small group of people. But doctors aren’t sure and more research is needed. In general, the risks of drinking alcohol outweigh any benefit.

Alcohol and cancer

Drinking alcohol can increase you chance of getting certain cancers. Alcohol causes nearly 12,000 cases of cancer each year in the UK. This includes cancers of the:

  • mouth
  • throat
  • voice box (larynx)
  • gullet (oesophagus)
  • 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. And 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.

Alcohol and your digestive system

Drinking too much alcohol can cause problems with your digestive system, including the following conditions.

  • Gastritis – inflammation of your stomach lining. This can cause symptoms of indigestion, feeling sick and vomiting. Gastritis can also lead to bleeding inside your stomach.
  • Gastro-oesophageal reflux (GORD) – where some of your stomach contents come back up into your lower gullet (oesophagus). This gives you the symptoms of indigestion, and in time can cause damage to the lining of your gullet.
  • Pancreatitis – inflammation of your pancreas. Alcohol is the most common cause of both acute (short-lasting) and chronic (long-term) pancreatitis. The main symptom of pancreatitis is severe abdominal (tummy) pain. In the long term, pancreatitis can cause your pancreas to fail, leading to problems with digestion and diabetes.

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, although doctors aren’t completely sure why. It’s thought that alcohol may cause changes in ovulation and the menstrual cycle.

In men, excessive drinking can lead to a decrease in libido (sex drive) and can affect their ability to get an erection. Regularly drinking too much alcohol may affect a man’s fertility by reducing the amount of testosterone produced and reducing sperm quality.

Drinking alcohol, for both women and men, can also affect how well infertility treatments work. This includes both IVF (in vitro fertilisation) and GIFT (gamete intrafallopian transfer).

If you’re trying to get pregnant, the best advice is not to drink alcohol. If you or your partner drink heavily while you’re trying, you’re less likely to conceive. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, the safest advice for the health of your baby is not to drink alcohol at all

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms

If you’re dependent on alcohol and suddenly stop drinking or greatly reduce the amount you drink, you may get withdrawal symptoms.

 

  • a fast heartbeat
  • tremor (shaking)
  • sweating
  • difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • feeling sick and vomiting
  • feeling anxious
  • hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there)
  • seizures (‘fits’)

Withdrawal symptoms typically happen between four and 12 hours after your last drink. They tend to be at their worst after about two days and last for up to five days. Symptoms last longer in heavier drinkers.

If you’re drinking heavily and have decided to stop, it’s best to discuss this with your GP first. They’ll be able to give you advice about stopping drinking gradually. They’ll also be able to guide you to specialist alcohol services, who can prescribe medicines to help with any alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Some people benefit from hospital treatment.

Am I drinking safely?

After reading all this, you may now be thinking about your relationship with alcohol. Are you drinking safely and sensibly? Is your drinking under your control? Should you cut down or stop?

It’s not possible to be precise about how much alcohol is safe for individual men and women to drink. Current guidelines recommend that, over a week, it’s safest not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol. This is the same for both men and women. For more information about what makes up a unit, see our section: How much am I drinking? below.

But it’s best not to save up all the ‘allowance’ for a weekend binge. If you drink too much in a short space of time, you’re at increased risk of illness and injury. And it’s a good idea to have some alcohol-free days each week to help you stay under the recommended weekly limit.

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. For organisations that can help, have a look at our section: Other helpful websites below. 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 your drinking better and find ways to cut down.

How much am I drinking?

Our handy infographic below helps you to understand how many units of alcohol are in your drink. And you may like to have a go at our alcohol quiz.

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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Related information

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    • Alcohol – problem drinking. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised February 2018
    • Wernicke's encephalopathy. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed July 2020
    • Alcoholic liver disease. BMJ Best practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last reviewed July 2020
    • Alcohol-related psychosis. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated December 2017
    • Alcoholic hepatitis. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated September 2019
    • Hypertension. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated February 2019
    • Obesity in adults. Patient. patient.info, last edited January 2015
    • Alcohol toxicity and withdrawal. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision May 2020
    • Erosive gastritis. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision January 2020
    • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision July 2019
    • Acute pancreatitis. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision July 2019
    • Chronic pancreatitis. MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision July 2019
    • Alcohol facts. Alcohol Change UK. alcoholchange.org.uk, accessed August 2020
    • Facts. Drinkaware. drinkaware.co.uk, accessed August 2020
    • Hangovers. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. niaaa.nih.gov, updated March 2019
    • Alcohol and depression. Royal College of Psychiatrists. rcpsych.ac.uk, published November 2019
    • Yoon S, Jun J, Lee S, et al. The protective effect of alcohol consumption on the incidence of cardiovascular diseases: is it real? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies conducted in community settings. BMC Public Health 2020; 20:90. doi:10.1186/s12889-019-7820-z
    • Statement on consumption of alcoholic beverages and risk of cancer. Committee on Carcinogenicity. www.gov.uk, published January 2016
    • Van Heertum KV, Rossi B. Alcohol and fertility: how much is too much? Fertil Res Pract 2017; 3:10. doi:10.1186/s40738-017-0037-x
    • Alcohol and pregnancy. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. rcog.org.uk, published January 2018
    • UK Chief Medical Officers' low risk drinking guidelines. Department of Health. www.gov.uk, published August 2016
    • Does alcohol cause cancer? Cancer Research UK. cancerresearchuk.org, last reviewed December 2018
    • Personal communication, Dr Jo Byfleet, Bupa Clinics GP and Physician in Charge, September 2020

  • Reviewed by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, September 2020
    Expert reviewer, Dr Jo Byfleet, Bupa Clinics GP and Physician in Charge
    Next review due September 2023



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