We know nutrition and exercise are ways to improve our health, but it’s also important to discuss alcohol consumption and the impact of excessive alcohol use on our health. Drinking excessively is harmful, but it can be controlled and prevented. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use leads to about 88,000 deaths in the U.S. each year and shortens the life of those who die by almost 30 years.1
What’s considered a ‘drink’?
- 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol by volume)
- 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol by volume)
- 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol by volume)
- 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits such as vodka, whiskey, gin, etc. (40% alcohol by volume)
Do you know the signs of excessive alcohol use?
Binge drinking is the most common, costly, and deadly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks or women consume 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours. Most people who binge drink are not alcohol dependent.2
Who binge drinks?
- One in six U.S. adults binge drinks about four times a month, consuming about eight drinks per binge.
- Binge drinking is most common among younger adults aged 18–34 years old.
- The prevalence of binge drinking among men is twice the prevalence among women.2
The Cost of Excessive Alcohol Use
Excessive drinking cost the American economy $249 billion in 2010:
- Workplace productivity: $179 billion (72%)
- Healthcare: $28 billion (11%)
- Criminal Justice: $25 billion (10%)
- Collisions: $13 billion (5%)3
Binge drinkers account for most of the cost at $191 billion (77% of the total cost). For more details, visit the CDC.
Short-Term Health Risks
Excessive alcohol use has immediate effects that increase the risk of many harmful health conditions. These are most often the result of binge drinking and include the following:
- Injuries, such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings, and burns.
- Violence, including homicide, suicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.
- Alcohol poisoning, a medical emergency that results from high blood alcohol levels.
- Risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
- Miscarriage and stillbirth or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) among pregnant women.4
Long-Term Health Risks
Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including:
- High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
- Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon.
- Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
- Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
- Social problems, including lost productivity, family problems, and unemployment.
- Alcohol dependence, or alcoholism.4
By not drinking too much, you can reduce the risk of these short- and long-term health risks.
Life-Threatening Signs of Alcohol Poisoning Include:
- Inability to wake up
- Slow breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute)
- Irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths)
- Hypothermia (low body temperature), bluish skin color, paleness5
Alcohol Poisoning Deaths
According to the CDC, most people who die of alcohol poisoning are non-Hispanic whites (68%). Additionally, 76% of deaths are men and 24% are women. Alcohol poisoning deaths vary by state and are most common among middle aged adults.5
Image Source: CDC5
What is Moderate Drinking?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. In addition, the Dietary Guidelines do not recommend that individuals who do not drink alcohol start drinking for any reason.
However, there are some people who should not drink any alcohol, including those who are:
- Younger than age 21.
- Pregnant or may be pregnant.
- Driving, planning to drive, or participating in other activities requiring skill, coordination, and alertness.
- Taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol.
- Suffering from certain medical conditions.
- Recovering from alcoholism or are unable to control the amount they drink.
By adhering to the Dietary Guidelines, you can reduce the risk of harm to yourself or others.
Alcohol Use Disorders
Alcohol use disorder is when your drinking causes serious problems in your life, yet you keep drinking. You may also need more and more alcohol to feel drunk. Stopping suddenly may cause withdrawal symptoms.
You may have an alcohol use disorder if you:
- Have little or no control over the amount you drink, when you drink, or how often you drink.
- Tried to limit or stop your drinking but found you could not.
- Had withdrawal symptoms when you tried to stop drinking. (These symptoms include tremors, anxiety, irritability, racing heart, nausea, sweating, trouble sleeping, and seizures.)
- Have put yourself in a dangerous situation (such as driving, swimming, and unsafe sex) on one or more occasions while drinking.
- Have become tolerant to the effects of drinking and require more alcohol to become intoxicated.
- Have continued to drink despite having memory blackouts after drinking or having frequent hangovers that cause you to miss work and other normal activities.
- Have continued to drink despite having a medical condition that you know is worsened by alcohol consumption.
- Have continued to drink despite knowing it is causing problems at home, school, or work.
- Start your drinking early in the day.6
There are many screening tests that doctors use to check for alcohol use disorders. Some of these tests you can take on your own. The CAGE test is an acronym for the following questions. It asks:
- Have you ever felt you should CUT (C) down on your drinking?
- Have people ANNOYED (A) you by criticizing your drinking?
- Have you ever felt bad or GUILTY (G) about your drinking?
- Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning, to steady your nerves, or to get rid of a hangover (use of alcohol as an EYE-OPENER [E] in the morning)?
- If you responded “yes” to at least two of these questions, you may be at risk for alcoholism.6
Screening in the Doctor’s Office
Primary care doctors should screen adults for alcohol misuse, according to guidelines from the U.S Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Health care providers can give people identified at risk brief behavioral counseling interventions to help them address their drinking.
Medications for Alcohol Use Disorders
Oral naltrexone (ReVia, generic) and acamprosate (Campral, generic) are effective medications for treating alcohol use disorders, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The following organizations are good resources for information on alcoholism:
- Alcoholics Anonymous – www.aa.org
- Al-Anon/Alateen – www.al-anon.org/home
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism – www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration – www.samhsa.gov
- A.D.A.M., Inc.