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Effects of alcohol misuse

Even small amounts of alcohol will impact on physical health and the way people behave. The short and long-term effects of alcohol can affect your body, lifestyle and mental health. Being aware about what the effects are can help people make an informed choice about drinking. 

Alcohol misuse means drinking excessively - more than the lower-risk limits of alcohol consumption. Alcohol consumption is measured in units, and one unit of alcohol is 10ml of pure alcohol, which is about:

  • half a pint of normal-strength lager
  • a single measure (25ml) of spirits
  • a small glass (125ml) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol. 

The NHS recommends:

  • not regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week
  • if you drink as much as 14 units a week, it's best to spread this evenly over three or more days
  • if you're trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, it's a good idea to have several alcohol-free days each week (NHS Choices).

Short and long term effects of alcohol misuse

1-2 units

After drinking 1-2 units of alcohol, your heart rate speeds up and your blood vessels expand, giving you the warm, sociable and talkative feeling associated with moderate drinking.

4-6 units

After drinking 4-6 units of alcohol, your brain and nervous system starts to be affected. It begins to affect the part of your brain associated with judgement and decision making, causing you to be more reckless and uninhibited. The alcohol also impairs the cells in your nervous system, making you feel light-headed and adversely affecting your reaction time and co-ordination.

8-9 units 

After drinking 8-9 units of alcohol, your reaction times will be much slower, your speech will begin to slur and your vision will begin to lose focus. Your liver, which filters alcohol out of your body, will be unable to remove all of the alcohol overnight, so it's likely you'll wake with a hangover.

10-12 units 

After drinking 10-12 units of alcohol, your co-ordination will be highly impaired, placing you at serious risk of having an accident. The high level of alcohol has a depressant effect on both your mind and body, which makes you drowsy. This amount of alcohol will begin to reach toxic (poisonous) levels. Your body attempts to quickly pass out the alcohol in your urine. This will leave you feeling badly dehydrated in the morning, which may cause a severe headache. The excess amount of alcohol in your system can also upset your digestion, leading to symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and indigestion.

More than 12 units

If you drink more than 12 units of alcohol, you're at considerable risk of developing alcohol poisoning, particularly if you're drinking many units over a short period of time. It usually takes the liver about an hour to remove one unit of alcohol from the body.

Alcohol poisoning occurs when excessive amounts of alcohol start to interfere with the body's automatic functions, such as:

  • breathing 
  • heart rate 
  • gag reflex, which prevents you choking. 

Alcohol poisoning can cause a person to fall into a coma and could lead to their death.

Long term effects of alcohol misuse

Drinking large amounts of alcohol for many years will take its toll on many of the body's organs and may cause organ damage. Organs known to be damaged by long-term alcohol misuse include the brain and nervous system, heart, liver and pancreas.

Heavy drinking can also increase your blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, both of which are major risk factors for heart attacks and strokes.

Long-term alcohol misuse can weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to serious infections. It can also weaken your bones, placing you at greater risk of fracturing or breaking them.

There are many long-term health risks associated with alcohol misuse. They include:

  • high blood pressure 
  • stroke 
  • pancreatitis 
  • liver disease 
  • cancer – around 4% of all cases of cancer in the uk are directly attributable to alcohol
  • depression 
  • dementia 
  • sexual problems, such as impotence or premature ejaculation 
  • infertility.

In addition to these issues, alcohol is implicated in a number of social related issues, some examples of the impact of alcohol have been highlighted below.

There are also wider harms that are associated with alcohol misuse with 31% of men and 16% of women in England drinking alcohol in a way that presents increasing risk or potential harm to their health and wellbeing. This proportion is higher for the 15 to 64 age group. The Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 revealed that, in England, alcohol misuse is the biggest risk factor for early death, ill health and disability for those aged 15 to 49 years. For all ages it is the fifth most important. In addition, up to 17 million working days are lost annually through absences caused by drinking and up to 20 million are lost through loss of employment or reduced employment opportunities.

Page last updated - 27/06/2023