How to Handle Alcohol
This section provides basic information about what a standard drink is and guidelines on responsible drinking. People are more likely to drink responsibly if they have sufficient knowledge that enables them to make the right choices on when to drink, how much to drink, or whether to drink at all.
What is a “standard drink”?
A standard drink measures the amount of alcohol, not the amount of liquid you’re drinking – because it’s the alcohol content that is most important to track.
Similar products in containers of the same size may hold different numbers of standard drinks.
What is low risk drinking?
Governments of many countries have guidelines for ‘safe’ or ‘low-risk’ drinking for adults, set at a level at which there is little health risk for most people. It should be noted however that individuals do differ in terms of what level will cause harm. Therefore, despite the guidelines, what is most important is for you “to know your limits”.
The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) low-risk drinking definition is:
(2) Women do not drink more than two drinks a day on average
(3) For men, not more than three drinks a day on average
(4) Try not to exceed four drinks on any one occasion
(0) Not to drink alcohol in some situations, such as when driving, if pregnant or in certain work situations and to abstain from drinking at least once a week.
Men or women who consistently drink more than these recommended levels may increase risks to their health.
You can access the WHO guide at www.
What does low risk drinking mean?
Low risk drinking means drinking enjoyably, sociably and sensibly.
As a parent, it means being aware of the risks to young people of drinking and setting an example of moderation.
When you do drink, make sure you consume plenty of water or non-alcoholic beverages between alcoholic drinks and eat either before or while drinking.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that responsible drinkers spread the number of units they drink throughout the week, with two alcohol free days. Remember, if you regularly drink more than these responsible drinking guidelines, health risks start to accumulate.
How and when you drink is equally as important. Drinking on an empty stomach or drinking fast, results in higher blood alcohol levels and these will also be affected by your size weight, health and age. Being very tired, ill or stressed may affect a person’s reaction to alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant and places stress on the body systems which may result in you being affected more by alcohol when tired or run down.
How many units are there in different types of drinks?
A useful guide to understanding alcohol units and measures can be found here.
Who do the guidelines apply to?
Moderation guidelines are set for an average healthy adult and therefore do not apply to young people who have not reached physical maturity, people with conditions which may be affected by alcohol such as pregnant women or those with untreated high blood pressure, or those taking medications that do not combine well with alcohol. Those with a history of addiction or mental illness should abstain or consult their doctor for advice.
Young people can’t cope with alcohol physically or emotionally as well as adults. That’s why there are no safe limits for this age group, and laws exist to restrict purchase and consumption of alcohol by young people.
When not to drink?
Sometimes it makes sense not to drink at all. Even a small amount of alcohol affects your judgement, reactions and co-ordination. Most people who enjoy drinking find it a sociable and relaxing thing to do. However, there are times when drinking too much – or even at all can cause problems or harm.
- Do not drink and drive
- Don’t operate machinery, use electrical equipment or work at heights after drinking
- Don’t drink heavily before playing sport.
- Don’t drink while on certain medications – ask your Doctor if you are unsure.
- Don’t drink to drunkenness or ‘binge’ – it can lead to health and social problems
- Don’t drink when pregnant
How much is too much?
Regularly exceeding responsible drinking guidelines or regularly drinking to get drunk can lead to both short term and long term harm.
Government guidelines suggest that adult men and women don’t drink over a certain amount of alcohol a day, but this doesn’t mean someone can ‘save up’ their drinks for one big night out. Drinking a lot in one session can be harmful because the human body can’t process a lot of alcohol at once
The downside of drinking too much
Short term increased risks due to getting very drunk include:
- not getting home safely
- risky or unprotected sex which could result in sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies
- Fights and arguments which could result in trouble with the police and getting a criminal record
- being a victim of crime
- Injuries and accidents
- vomiting, passing out or even alcoholic poisoning
When you “binge drink” you increase your blood pressure and the risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Long term Heavy Drinking
There’s no two ways about it – heavy drinking, especially on a regular basis, can lead to serious health or social problems, including:
- Alcohol dependence or alcoholism
- Sexual difficulties, including impotence (alcohol tends to ‘increase the desire to minimise the performance’)
- Cirrhosis of the liver and alcoholic fatty liver
- Stomach disorders, such as ulcers
- Mood changes
- In extreme cases, alcoholic poisoning, coma, brain damage and death
- An increased risk of certain types of cancer, especially of the mouth, upper respiratory system and breast cancer.
- An increased risk of getting into financial difficulty, perhaps losing your job or home.
- Risks to the family, whereby children of dependent drinkers are more likely to develop alcohol related problems themselves and the family unit is more likely to break down.
It is important to remember that ‘the majority of people who drink alcohol, drink sensibly the majority of the time’. Also, more than half the worlds’ adult population choose not to drink alcohol for religious, cultural or health reasons.
Are there any health benefits to moderate drinking?
With moderate drinking , the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and the risk of death from cardiovascular disease as well as all causes, may be reduced by up to 30%, especially for men over 40 and post menopausal women for whom the risk factors for heart disease and strokes are highest.
The risk increases exceptionally, however, with each drink above moderation..
Statistically there are no health benefits for younger age groups who, for example, are at greater risk from alcohol related violence and accidents. It is not recommended that anyone should start drinking for health reasons.
Alcohol, may protect against cardiovascular disease because, in simple terms it “thins the blood” and so helps reduce the risk of harmful clots and clogging of the arteries. Small amounts of alcohol also stimulate the liver to produce ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) which in turn carries off the harmful cholesterol (LDL) for disposal.
The message is little and often however as just one standard drink is enough and the positive effect lasts for approximately 24 hours.
Several studies have confirmed that for middle-aged and older adults very moderate drinking can confer health benefits, such as lowered risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and Type 2 diabetes. Drinking more than ‘moderately’ can cause raised blood pressure and can interfere with good diabetes control thus increasing the risk of both stroke and heart attacks.