Moderate use of alcohol is not generally considered dangerous and may have some health benefits. “Moderate Drinking” is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as no more than one drink per day for women, and no more than two drinks per day for men. A “drink” is defined by the USDA as:
Some people in should avoid alcohol altogether:
While moderate use of alcohol can be beneficial for some, alcohol abuse:
Note: The terms “binge drinking,” “heavy alcohol use,” and “AUD” will be used below. The NIAAA defines binge drinking as about four drinks for women at a time, and five drinks for men. SAMHSA defines heavy alcohol use as binge drinking five or more times in the past month. AUD refers to an Alcohol Use Disorder, commonly known as alcoholism. See the section below titled “Defining Alcohol Use Disorder” for more information. </span
The 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that:
Data from the 2015 NSDUH suggests that:
The 2015 NSDUH reports that:
The consequences of alcohol abuse among college students are severe:
A 2009 study conducted by the University of New Mexico estimates that the prevalence of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome ranges from 2 to 7 cases per 1,000 pregnancies, and the rate of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) ranges from 20 to 50 cases per 1,000.
Much like other drugs, alcohol addiction is caused by a combination of the brain’s capability of rerouting it’s reward pathways, and the brain’s ability to develop tolerances.
When someone drinks alcohol, a sense of euphoria (or “buzz”) sets in. The feelings of pleasure associated with drinking alcohol naturally teach the brain to desire more alcohol, reinforcing what the brain’s reward center thinks is a positive activity.
The part of the brain that control decision making is inhibited by the use of alcohol, so people who drink find it harder and harder to quit drinking, even though they may know that it’s not a good choice, and it will lead to negative consequences later (such as a hangover). Since the brain’s reward center is creating a desire to drink and drinking inhibits the ability to make wise decisions, a couple of drinks can quickly turn into a binge-drinking session.
When a person drinks frequently and heavily, a natural tolerance is often built up, so a greater amount of alcohol is required to obtain the same sense of euphoria. Eventually, the body becomes chemically dependent on alcohol, meaning that many people need to drink just to feel “normal.”
The more alcohol a person uses, the more they require to feel the same sense of pleasure, and the more dependent the body gets on the substance. This cycle of dependency is referred to as an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).
The DSM-5 (the most recent version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) documents 11 criteria that are used to determine whether someone has an AUD and the severity of the disorder. If an individual meets any two of the criteria during a 12-month period, that person can be diagnosed with an AUD. The criteria below are taken directly from the NIAAA’s website. In the last 12 months, have you:
The severity of an AUD is officially diagnosed based on the number of questions you answered “yes” to:
Based on the criteria above, if you have any reason to be concerned about your alcohol-use behavior, contact an addiction specialist to schedule a professional assessment. For more on assessments and how to get help for alcohol addiction, read our guide to Alcohol Rehab.
Alcohol is a toxic compound that causes inebriation. While the initial effects are often pleasant, there are many serious consequences that range from overdosing (which can result in death) to long-term medical complications such as liver failure.
The CDC estimates that there are 2,200 deaths from alcohol poisoning every year – on average, six people die everyday from drinking too much alcohol. Alcohol poisoning happens when a person’s bloodstream is so flooded with alcohol that the portions of the brain that control life-supporting functions like breathing and heart rate start to shut down. Critical symptoms of alcohol poisoning include:
If you suspect that someone has alcohol poisoning, the Mayo Clinic recommends the following steps:
While the impairment of motor control is a serious side-effect of drinking, the real danger is the impairment of your decision-making ability. Not only are your balance, reflexes, and concentration impaired, you also may not realize the extent of your inebriation and make bad decisions, such as choosing to operate a motor vehicle. The combination of these two factors means that drinking heavily results in a higher chance of:
Alcohol abuse has both short- and long-term negative consequences on your health. The “hangover” you typically have the next day after binging on alcohol relates to both dehydration and depletion of key vitamins and minerals from your system. Binge drinking puts a notable stress on your liver, pancreas and other organs. According to the CDC and the NIAAA, health-related consequences of heavy drinking and long-term alcohol abuse include:
Alcohol is especially dangerous when combined with illicit drugs, prescription medications, or even common medicines – even when they aren’t taken simultaneously. As long as alcohol is still in your blood stream it can still interact with other substances.
Alcohol stays in your bloodstream until it is broken down by the liver. Since the symptoms of intoxication generally peak 40 to 60 minutes after you drink, alcohol may still be in your system after you quit feeling “drunk.”
How much alcohol is consumed determines how long alcohol will remain in your system. The higher your blood alcohol levels, the longer it will take for alcohol to be completely removed from your system. Alcohol can stay in your system anywhere from 2 to 24 hours, with blood alcohol levels decreasing gradually during that timeframe.
While many medicines have warning labels that instruct users not to mix them with alcohol, it’s always best to consult your doctor or a pharmacist before mixing alcohol with medicines. For a full list of common ingredients that interact with alcohol, read the NIAAA’s publication on the topic. Additionally, there are special factors to take into account:
Whether you are unaware of the interactions between alcohol and prescriptions drugs you are taking, you are attempting to get a “better high,” or you are a victim of someone attempting to commit a crime (such as sexual assault or robbery), the consequences of combining drugs and alcohol include potentially fatal overdoses, and other medical problems.
Withdrawal is what happens when a person’s body becomes dependent on a substance, and that substance is suddenly removed. For most people, withdrawal symptoms are only moderate or mild and disappear within 2-7 days of the last drink, not requiring medical attention. However, the symptoms are still unpleasant and can be complicated by other addictions or medical problems. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, common symptoms include:
Additionally, less common symptoms that sometimes occur are:
A serious form of alcohol withdrawal, delirium tremens (DT) occurs in 5-10% of cases involving alcohol withdrawal and have fatal results in 15% of untreated cases, 1% of treated cases, and 20% of treated cases when patients have other medical complications. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, DT involves “sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes” and is most common for those who have previously experienced alcohol withdrawal. Other factors impacting the prevalence of DT include the amount of alcohol regularly consumed, whether the person has used alcohol heavily for more than 10 years, and whether the person has a head injury, infection, or illness when they stop drinking. The U.S. National Library of Medicine states that the common symptoms of DT include:
Additionally, the typical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal (as listed above) may also occur with DT cases.
If you have a history of alcohol withdrawal, or you have been drinking heavily for a long period of time, you should contact your doctor or another medical professional before attempting to detox from alcohol. It’s especially important for those with a history of medical problems to be carefully monitored during the detox process.
For more information on treatment options and detox, read our guide on alcohol rehab
|Common Withdrawal Symptoms|
|Less-Common Withdrawal Symptoms|
|Delirium Tremens (DT) Symptoms|
Alcohol is particularly harmful to a growing human fetus, so pregnant women should avoid all alcohol consumption. The CDC emphasizes that no amount of alcohol use is “safe” during any point of the pregnancy – alcohol can even harm a baby before the mother knows she is pregnant. That’s why the CDC recommends that women who are sexually active and don’t use effective birth control shouldn’t drink.
Any alcohol in the mother’s blood is passed directly to the growing baby through the umbilical cord. Consuming alcohol during pregnancy notably increases the odds of miscarriage, stillbirth, and other permanent physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities. These congenital disabilities are generally described as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, babies with FASD suffer problems that last a lifetime, including:
An anti-inflammatory drug named Ibudilast, originally marketed in Japan to treat asthma, has shown great promise in reducing patients’ desire for alcohol. In a recent clinical trial, UCLA researchers found that Ibudilast could help people overcome alcohol addiction. The results showed that craving for alcohol was significantly lower among the trial participants when they were taking the medication.
Moderate drinking has been long thought to have health benefits, but a 2017 study published in the BMJ found that moderate drinkers (about one glass of wine an evening) were three times as likely suffer adverse brain outcomes including hippocampal atrophy – a form of brain damage that is associated with memory-loss conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
A growing body of research suggests current addictive drug and alcohol treatment models are of limited value, and that specialized medication-based treatments may be more effective. Dr. Domenic Ciraulo, Psychiatrist-in-Chief at the Boston Medical Center, is a major proponent of these new treatment methods. Ciraulo argues that adding long-term drug therapy to alcohol treatment offers a number of important benefits compared to traditional 12-step based programs that don’t include medication.
Alcoholism is a treatable disease, and even the most severe cases of alcohol addiction can be successfully treated. You can learn more about alcohol rehab programs and how to find a treatment facility near you in our guide to alcohol rehab.
Additionally, if you or a loved one are struggling with mental health issues in addition to substance addiction, read our guide to dual-diagnosis rehabs.