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What are the risks of alcohol?

We often hear about the benefits of alcohol in the media — but we don’t always get the full story. For instance, the benefits to heart health apply to just small amounts of alcohol — about half a standard drink a day, not half a bottle of red.

You may also have heard in the media that drinking too much can be bad for your health. Let’s look at some of the associated health risk linked to excessive alcohol use, both in the short term and in the long run.

What are the short term risks of drinking too much?

  • Immediate health effects you can suffer from include headaches, feeling sick and vomiting, dehydration, dizziness and passing out
  • Hangovers can make you feel sick and tired the next morning, and lead to problems when you’re at work
  • There’s a risk of injury to yourself and to others as a result of traffic accidents, falls or assault
  • You may increase your vulnerability to unsafe and unwanted sexual advances, which can lead to sexually transmitted infections or unwanted pregnancy
  • If you drink drive, there are risks of being killed or seriously injured
  • Alcohol overdose or ‘alcohol poisoning’. It’s possible to overdose on alcohol just like any other drug. This happens when a person’s blood alcohol level becomes dangerously high. Signs of an alcohol overdose include nausea, vomiting, and shallow breathing, having a fit, losing consciousness or coma. Severe alcohol poisoning can be fatal. The most common causes of death due to alcohol poisoning are when the blood alcohol is high enough to slow down the parts of the brain that control breathing and the heart or when the person chokes on their own vomit while unconscious.

What are the long term risks?

Alcohol is linked to a number of health problems such as:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease and stroke
  • Obesity and being overweight — alcohol is high in kilojoules and in addition may increase appetite
  • Liver disease — alcohol consumption is the most common cause of cirrhosis, where scarring of the liver affects blood flow through the liver
  • Inflammation of the stomach, bleeding and stomach ulcers
  • Inflammation of the pancreas which causes pain and can affect your body’s ability to digest food
  • Increased risk of osteoporosis, the bone-thinning disease — long-term heavy alcohol use decreases bone density and weakens bones. The most damage is done in young people but it also has harming effects in adults. Even when alcohol use is stopped, bones may not overcome the damage already done
  • Problems with mental health — there’s growing evidence that alcohol increases the risk of depression and anxiety in some people
  • Significant brain injury — memory loss, confusion, hallucinations, dementia
  • Sexual health problems such as impotence in men and a greater risk of gynaecological issues in women
  • Risks to unborn babies — alcohol enters the bloodstream of the developing baby and can cause a range of birth defects and growth and developmental problems (called Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder or FASD).

What’s the link between alcohol and cancer?

There’s convincing evidence linking alcohol to a higher risk of cancers, particularly of the upper airways and the digestive tract. This includes cancers of the mouth, throat, voice box and oesophagus. Up to 75 percent of these cancers can be related to the combined use of alcohol and smoking, so remember — alcohol and cigarettes are a bad combination.

There’s solid evidence linking alcohol to colon cancer in men and breast cancer in women as well. The increased risk of breast cancer is linked to drinking more than 30g alcohol daily (three standard drinks). This is similar to the risk of having a family history of the disease. Alcohol probably increases the risk of colorectal cancer in women and liver cancer as well.

With all these known risks, the advice from the Cancer Council is to limit or avoid alcohol altogether.

Why developing a tolerance to alcohol isn’t healthy

If you drink heavily you may develop a tolerance to alcohol, which means you’ll need to drink more to get the same effect. As a result, you may be able to drink large amounts of alcohol without appearing to get drunk. However, the amount of alcohol you drink can still damage your health.

Is alcohol addictive?

It can be. Alcohol dependence can be a physical or a psychological problem — or both, according to the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. Many of us are psychologically dependent on alcohol to some degree if we feel that we can’t socialise or have a good time without a drink, for instance.

Someone who is both physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol can experience withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, nausea, anxiety, depression, sweating, headaches and difficulty sleeping if they try to stop drinking or reduce their drinking.

In severe cases alcohol withdrawal may cause convulsions, cramps, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations and even death. Anyone who is dependent on alcohol and wants to quit drinking should talk to their doctor or other health professional first.

What are the health benefits of drinking?

Pearson, on behalf of the American Heart Association, looked at studies linking alcohol and coronary heart disease. The evidence suggests that if there are no health reasons stopping a person from drinking, such as pregnancy or a personal or family history of alcoholism, low levels of alcohol consumption may be beneficial and help to slightly reduce the risk of some heart disease and stroke. However, you may be able to get the same benefits through other means such as regular exercise or eating a heart-healthy diet so talk to your doctor to work out the risks and benefits for you of drinking alcohol.

How can I reduce the risks of alcohol?

  • For healthy adults over 18, drinking no more than two standard drinks on any one day reduces the lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related disease and injury.
  • Sticking to less than four standard drinks on a single occasion reduces your risk of alcohol related injury. Having four or more drinks, even once a week, increases your lifetime risk of alcohol-related injury by almost ten times.
  • You can lower the lifetime risk of alcohol-related disease or injury even more by reducing the number of times you drink — through regular alcohol-free days, for example.
  • As adolescent brains are still developing they are more easily damaged by alcohol. Under 15s are advised to not drink at all as they are at the greatest risk of harm from drinking. For 15–17 year olds the safest option is to delay drinking for as long as possible.

Further information

Australian Drug Foundation www.adf.org.au

National Health and Medical Research Council: Summary of alcohol guidelines to reducing health risks www.nhmrc.gov.au/your_health/healthy/alcohol/index.htm#sum

Sources

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. Canberra, ACT: AIHW. 2008 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/index.cfm/title/10674

Cancer Council. Postition statement — Alcohol and cancer prevention. Kings Cross, NSW: Cancer Council. 2008 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.cancercouncil.com.au/

DrugInfo Clearinghouse. Alcohol. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2006. [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://druginfo.adf.org.au/

DrugInfo Clearinghouse. The effects of alcohol on the young brain: for workers. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2005. [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://druginfo.adf.org.au/

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. The Harmful Effects of Alcohol. [online] Kensington, NSW: University of NSW Faculty of Medicine. c2005 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://ndarc.med.unsw.edu.au/

National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines: To Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: http://www.nhmrc.gov.au/_files_nhmrc/file/publications/synopses/ds10-alcohol.pdf (PDF, 2.3Mb)

Osteoporosis Australia. Osteoporosis. Risk Factors http://www.osteoporosis.org.au/

Pearson TA. Alcohol and heart disease. Circulation. 1996; 94: 3023–3025.

Samson HW. Alcohol and other factors affecting osteoporosis risk in women. Bethseda, MD: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 2003 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from: http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-4/292-298.htm

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Disclaimer
This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals and to the best of their knowledge is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the recommendations or assessments and is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information, except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010