What You Don't Know Can Harm You
If you are like many Americans, you may drink
alcohol occasionally. Or, like others, you may drink moderate amounts of alcohol on a more
regular basis. If you are a woman or someone over the age of 65, this means that you have
no more than one drink per day; if you are a man, this means that you have no more than
two drinks per day. Drinking at these levels usually is not associated with health risks
and can help to prevent certain forms of heart disease.
But did you know that even moderate drinking, under certain
circumstances, is not risk free? And that if you drink at more than moderate levels, you
may be putting yourself at risk for serious problems with your health and problems with
family, friends, and coworkers? This booklet explains some of the consequences of drinking
that you may not have considered.
What Is a Drink
A standard drink is:
One 12-ounce bottle of beer, or wine cooler, or
one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof
(*Beer ranges considerably in its alcohol content, with malt liquor
being higher in its alcohol content than most other brewed beverages.)
Drinking and Driving
It may surprise you to learn that you don't need to drink much
alcohol before your ability to drive becomes impaired. For example, certain driving
skills--such as steering a car while, at the same time, responding to changes in
traffic--can be impaired by blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) as low as 0.02 percent.
(The BAC refers to the amount of alcohol in the blood.) A 160-pound man will have a BAC of
about 0.04 percent 1 hour after consuming two 12-ounce beers or two other standard drinks
on an empty stomach (see the box, "What Is a Drink?"). And the more alcohol you
consume, the more impaired your driving skills will be. Although most States set the BAC
limit for adults who drive after drinking at 0.08 to 0.10 percent, impairment of driving
skills begins at much lower levels.
Interactions With Medications
Alcohol interacts negatively with more than 150 medications. For
example, if you are taking
antihistamines for a cold or allergy and drink alcohol, the alcohol will increase the
drowsiness that the medication alone can cause, making driving or operating machinery even
more hazardous. And if you are taking large doses of the painkiller acetaminophen and
drinking alcohol, you are risking serious liver damage. Check with your doctor or
pharmacist before drinking any amount of alcohol if you are taking any over-the-counter or
The more heavily you drink, the greater the potential for
problems at home, at work, with friends, and even with strangers. These problems may
Arguments with or estrangement from your spouse and other family
Strained relationships with coworkers;
Absence from or lateness to work with increasing frequency;
Loss of employment due to decreased productivity; and
Committing or being the victim of violence.
Alcohol-Related Birth Defects
If you are a pregnant woman or one who is trying to conceive, you
can prevent alcohol-related birth defects by not drinking alcohol during your pregnancy.
Alcohol can cause a range of birth defects, the most serious being fetal alcohol syndrome
(FAS). Children born with alcohol-related birth defects can have lifelong learning and
behavior problems. Those born with FAS have physical abnormalities, mental impairment, and
behavior problems. Because scientists do not know exactly how much alcohol it takes to
cause alcohol-related birth defects, it is best not to drink any alcohol during this time.
Long-Term Health Problems
Some problems, like those mentioned above, can occur after
drinking over a relatively short period of time. But other problems--such as liver
disease, heart disease, certain forms of cancer, and pancreatitis--often develop more
gradually and may become evident only after long-term heavy drinking.
Women may develop alcohol-related health problems after consuming
less alcohol than men do over a shorter period of time. Because alcohol affects many
organs in the body, long-term heavy drinking puts you at risk for developing serious
health problems, some of which are described below.
Alcohol-related liver disease. More than 2 million Americans
suffer from alcohol-related liver disease. Some drinkers develop alcoholic
hepatitis, or inflammation of the liver, as a result of long-term heavy drinking. Its
symptoms include fever, jaundice (abnormal yellowing of the skin, eyeballs, and urine),
and abdominal pain. Alcoholic hepatitis can cause death if drinking continues. If drinking
stops, this condition often is reversible. About 10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers
develop alcoholic cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver. Alcoholic cirrhosis can cause death
if drinking continues. Although cirrhosis is not reversible, if drinking stops, one's
chances of survival improve considerably. Those with cirrhosis often feel better, and the
functioning of their liver may improve, if they stop drinking. Although liver
transplantation may be needed as a last resort, many people with cirrhosis who abstain
from alcohol may never need liver transplantation. In addition, treatment for the
complications of cirrhosis is available.
Heart disease. Moderate drinking can have beneficial
effects on the heart, especially among those at greatest risk for heart attacks, such as
men over the age of 45 and women after menopause. But long-term heavy drinking increases
the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and some kinds of stroke.
Cancer. Long-term heavy drinking increases the risk of
developing certain forms of cancer, especially cancer of the esophagus, mouth, throat, and
voice box. Women are at slightly increased risk of developing breast cancer if they drink
two or more drinks per day. Drinking may also increase the risk for developing cancer of
the colon and rectum.
Pancreatitis. The pancreas helps to regulate the body's
blood sugar levels by producing insulin. The pancreas also has a role in digesting the
food we eat. Long-term heavy drinking can lead to pancreatitis, or inflammation of the
pancreas. This condition is associated with severe abdominal pain and weight loss and can
If you or someone you know has been drinking heavily, there
is a risk of developing serious health problems. Because some of these health problems are
both reversible and treatable, it is important to see your doctor for help. Your doctor
will be able to advise you about both your health and your drinking.