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Many people are able to keep their drinking within the recommended limits of alcohol consumption, so their risk of alcohol-related health problems is low. However, for some, the amount of alcohol they drink could put them at risk of damaging their health.
Alcohol misuse is drinking more than the recommended limits of alcohol consumption.
There are three main types of alcohol misuse:
- hazardous drinking: drinking over the recommended limits
- harmful drinking: drinking over the recommended limits and experiencing alcohol-related health problems
- dependent drinking: feeling unable to function without alcohol
Many people who have alcohol-related health problems aren't alcoholics.
Read more about the different types of alcohol misuse.
Units of alcohol
Alcohol is measured in units. A unit of alcohol is equivalent to 10ml of pure alcohol, which is roughly half a pint of normal strength lager, a small glass of wine or a single measure (25ml) of spirits.
The recommended daily limits for alcohol consumption are:
- no more than three to four units a day for men
- no more than two to three units a day for women
For both men and women, it is also recommended to include some alcohol-free days each week. You are putting your health at risk if you regularly exceed the recommended daily limits.
Am I drinking too much alcohol?
Some signs that you could be misusing alcohol include:
- feeling that you should cut down on your drinking
- other people have been criticising your drinking, which may annoy you
- feeling guilty or bad about your drinking
- needing a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover
Some signs that someone you know may be misusing alcohol include:
- if they regularly exceed the recommended daily limit for alcohol
- if they are sometimes unable to remember what happened the night before because of their drinking
- if they fail to do what was expected of them due to their drinking – for example, missing an appointment or work because they were drunk or hungover
Risks of alcohol misuse
Over 2009 and 2010, around one million hospital admissions were due to an alcohol-related condition or injury.
The short-term risks of alcohol misuse include:
- alcohol poisoning, which may include vomiting, seizures (fits) and unconsciousness
- accidents and injuries requiring hospital treatment, such as a head injury
- violent behaviour that might lead to being arrested by the police
- unprotected sex that could potentially lead to unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- loss of possessions, such as a wallet, keys or phone, leading to feelings of anxiety
Long-term alcohol misuse is a major risk factor for a wide range of serious conditions, such as:
As well as health problems, long-term alcohol misuse can lead to social problems such as unemployment, divorce, domestic abuse and homelessness.
Read more about the risks of alcohol misuse.
If you visit your GP because you're concerned about your drinking, or you receive treatment due to an alcohol-related injury or illness, your alcohol intake may be assessed.
The two most common tests used are an Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) or a Fast Alcohol Screening Test (FAST).
It is important to be truthful when answering the questions in the tests so that you receive the right treatment to help you.
Read more about diagnosing alcohol misuse.
Treating alcohol misuse
How alcohol misuse is treated will depend on how much a person is drinking. Treatment options include:
- detoxification: this involves drinking less alcohol or stopping completely, and may take place in a clinic if you are dependent on alcohol
- counselling: including self-help groups and talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- medication: such as acamprosate which can help reduce the cravings for alcohol
Read more about the options for treating alcohol misuse.
If you are concerned about your drinking, or someone else's, a good first step is to visit your GP. They will be able to discuss the services and treatments available.
As well as the NHS, there are leading charities and support groups across the UK that provide support and advice for people with an alcohol misuse problem.
You may want to contact:
- Alcoholics Anonymous: the helpline number is 0845 769 7555
- Alcohol Concern: which runs the national drink helpline (Drinkline) on 0800 917 8282
Alcohol and pregnancy
The Department of Health recommends that pregnant women and women trying to conceive should avoid drinking alcohol. If they do choose to drink, they should not drink more than one to two units of alcohol once or twice a week and they should avoid getting drunk.
- Find services: alcohol addiction support
- Special report: alcohol in the media
- Alcohol poisoning
- Alcoholic liver disease
- Drinking and alcohol
- News: alcohol cancer risk
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Alcohol Concern
- AlAnon: for families and friends of alcoholics
- National Association for Children of Alcoholics
- DVLA: medical conditions
- British Liver Trust
- Lab Tests Online UK