To keep health risks from alcohol to a low level:

  • both men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week on a regular basis
  • spread your drinking over 3 or more days if you regularly drink as much as 14 units a week
  • to cut down, try to have several drink-free days each week

If you drink less than 14 units a week, this is considered low-risk drinking. It’s called “low risk” rather than “safe” because there’s no safe drinking level.

Fourteen units is equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer or 10 small (125ml) glasses of low-strength wine per week.

The type of illnesses you can develop after 10 to 20 years of regularly drinking more than 14 units a week include: 

Liver disease – While alcohol affects almost all 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. If you drink lots of alcohol or too quickly, these toxic chemicals can build up, and your liver must work harder to process them. Over time, regularly drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of alcohol-related liver disease. Rates of alcohol-related liver disease have risen considerably over the last few decades. Alcohol misuse is now one of the most common causes of death in the UK, along with smoking and high blood pressure. The good news is: if you cut down or stop drinking in the early stages of liver disease, your liver may well recover.

Heart and Circulation Problems – When you drink alcohol, your heart begins to beat faster. If you regularly drink too much alcohol, it will raise your blood pressure. Having high blood pressure puts strain on your heart and blood vessels and can increase your risk of heart disease or stroke. Your heart muscle can become damaged and drinking too much can also lead to an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) or enlargement of the heart.

Cancer – Drinking alcohol increases your chances of developing certain cancers. This includes cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box (larynx), gullet (oesophagus), large bowel (intestine), liver and breast. Not everyone who drinks alcohol develops cancer, but we know that drinking even a small amount can increase your risk. The more you drink, the greater your risk.

Digestive Problems – Alcohol irritates your stomach. It increases the amount of acid your stomach produces, causing 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 and nausea. Alcohol can also damage your pancreas. If you drink too much, it can lead to acute (short-lasting) or chronic (long-lasting) pancreatitis.

Mental Health Issues – Drinking heavily over a long time can affect your mental health. If you drink regularly, it can create dependence 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 anxiety and depression. Drinking can also affect your judgement, your behaviour, your sleep, your mood. Research has found strong links between alcohol misuse and self-harm, including suicide.

Nervous System Damage – Regularly drinking too much alcohol can damage nerves, which carry information between your body and brain, and between 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.

Fertility Problems – Male and female fertility 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. In men, excessive drinking can lead to a decrease in libido and can affect the ability to get an erection. Regularly drinking too much alcohol will affect sperm quality.

Weight Management Challenges – Alcohol contains a lot of calories. Regularly drinking more than the NHS recommends can have a noticeable impact on your waistline.

Drinking too much can also affect your immune system, which can affect the body’s ability to fight infectious diseases.

Drinking too much too quickly on any single occasion increases your risk of:

  • accidents resulting in injury or death
  • misjudging risky situations
  • losing self-control, like having unprotected sex or becoming involved in violence

To reduce your health risks on any single session:

  • limit how much you drink
  • drink more slowly
  • drink with food
  • alternate with water or non-alcoholic drinks

The effects of alcohol on your health will depend on how much you drink. The less you drink, the lower the health risks.

The number of units you are drinking depends on the size and strength of your drink.

Build healthy habits by swapping a pint of beer for a half pint of beer.

The Hidden Risks of ‘Social Drinking’

Many people who see themselves as “social drinkers” are at risk of developing long-term health conditions because of the amount they regularly drink. Many drinkers are unaware that regularly drinking more than 14 units a week can lead to a wide range of long-term health problems.

Some people think it’s natural to have a bottle of wine a night. They believe it is low risk because they are drinking with food and it’s not associated with any drunken behaviour or feeling drunk. But if this happens regularly, it is likely to cause problems. You don’t need to be an alcoholic to develop severe alcohol-related liver disease. 

Tips on Cutting Down

If you regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, try these tips to help you feel the benefits of cutting down:

  • Make a plan – before you start drinking, set a limit on how much you’re going to drink.
  • Set a budget – only take a fixed amount of money to spend on alcohol.
  • Enlist the support of friends and family – if you let your friends and family know you’re cutting down and it’s important to you, they can act as support.
  • Take it a day at a time – cut back a little each day. That way, every day you do is a success.
  • Make the drink smaller – you can still enjoy a drink but go for smaller sizes. Try bottled beer instead of pints, swap a pint of beer for a half pint of beer or a small glass of wine instead of a large one.
  • Have a lower-strength drink – cut down the alcohol by swapping strong beers or wines for ones with a lower strength (ABV in %). You’ll find this information on the bottle.
  • Stay hydrated – have a glass of water before you have alcohol and alternate alcoholic drinks with water or other non-alcoholic drinks.
  • Take a break – have several drink-free days each week.

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Experts are still unsure exactly how much – if any – alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy. The Chief Medical Officers for the UK recommend that if you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, the safest approach is not to drink alcohol at all to keep risks to your baby to a minimum. Drinking in pregnancy can lead to long-term harm to the baby; the more you drink, the greater the risk.