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What Are the Risks of Heavy Drinking?

What Harm Does Too Much Alcohol Do?

By

Updated July 23, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Unhappy Drinkers

Unhappy Drinkers

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If you drink more than the recommended guidelines for alcohol consumption, you may be wondering what exactly are the risks. What is the harm in drinking too much alcohol?

The recommended guidelines for low-risk drinking is four or fewer drinks a day for men and no more than 14 drinks a week. For women, it's three or fewer drinks a day and no more than seven drinks per week. If you drink more than that, your drinking pattern is considered high-risk, or heavy drinking.

Risk for Alcohol Use Disorders

If you are a heavy drinker, the first risk that you face is developing an alcohol use disorder. Only 2% of people who drink at the low-risk level are ever diagnosed with alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. But if you exceed the recommended levels, that percentage increases significantly, according to extensive research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). If you exceed those guidelines regularly, your risk of developing alcoholism can increase to 50%.

If you develop an alcohol use disorder, according to research, you also run the risk of developing other personal problems, such as losing your driver's license, losing your job, and having problems with relationships. Heavy drinking is linked to many personal negative consequences.

Risk for Health Problems

Scientific research has linked heavy drinking to a wide range of effects on your health. Almost every system in your body can be negatively affected by alcohol.

Heavy drinking has been shown to cause or contribute to the following health conditions:

Alcohol has been linked specifically to head and neck cancers, breast cancer, colon cancer, and liver cancer.

Risk for Injury

Heavy drinking also significantly increases your chances of becoming the victim of an injury - inside the home and out. Alcohol impairment or intoxication greatly increases your risk of injuring yourself or being injured by others. According to the latest statistics, alcohol is a factor:

  • In 40% of fatal highway crashes, suicides and fatal falls.
  • In 50% of sexual assaults and trauma injuries.
  • In 60% of all fatal fires, drownings and homicides.

Risk for Birth Defects

If you drink heavily during pregnancy, you increase the risk of your baby developing a range of disorders known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). The most severe effects of prenatal alcohol exposure is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

It is not known if any amount of alcohol is safe to drink while you are pregnant. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, it is recommended that you do not drink at all. If you drink and it is possible that you could become pregnant, frequent home pregnancy testing can help protect your child from prenatal alcohol exposure.

Getting Help

If you are an at-risk or heavy drinker, you may want to read how other drinkers say their health has been affected by their alcohol consumption. If you have experienced negative health effects, you may want to seek help in cutting down your alcohol consumption or trying to quit.

Sources:

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol Alert: Alcohol and Cancer." No. 21 PH 345.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Alcohol's Damaging Effects on the Brain." October 2004

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. "Rethinking Drinking: Alcohol and Your Health." February 2009.

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