Reducing harm caused by alcohol

Drinking too much?

While there is no guaranteed 'safe' level of drinking, regularly drinking more than the low risk guidelines can be damaging in the short and long term.

No safe level

The UK Chief Medical Officers have updated the alcohol guidelines to reflect new evidence about the health risks associated with drinking, and cancer in particular.

To keep health risks from drinking alcohol to a low level, men and women should not regularly drink more than 14 units per week.

Fourteen units is the equivalent of 6 pints of beer, a bottle and a half of wine, or half a bottle of spirits. It is best to spread this evenly across the week rather than drinking all at once.

Having several alcohol-free days each week is a good way to cut down.

Each of us needs to make up our own minds whether and how much we want to drink. What’s important is that the health risks are clear so we can make an informed choice about the level of risk we are prepared to accept.

Drink less, feel better

It is sometimes hard to tell if you are drinking more than is good for you. Many people drink more than they think, especially when drinking at home.

Short term benefits - you may notice you sleep better, have improved concentration, lose weight, save money, and you certainly won’t miss the fuzzy head and nausea of a hangover.

In the longer term, you will be doing your health a big favour by reducing your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, cancer and liver damage.

Tips for cutting down

  • Have food before and during drinking    
  • Drink plenty of water in between alcoholic drinks    
  • Watch out for bigger measures poured at home    
  • Check the strength of your drink - brands can vary dramatically    
  • Choose a low alcohol or alcohol-free option instead    
  • Set a budget for a night out and stick to it
  • Have several alcohol-free days each week

What is a unit?

A unit is 10ml of pure alcohol.

You can work out how many units are in any drink. Multiply the volume (in ml) by the % abv (strength) then divide by 1000.

For example, a 750ml bottle of wine which is 13% abv would be:

750 x 13 = 9,750/1000 = 9.75 units

Or use this handy unit calculator

Alcohol Units

Recognising problem drinking

Many people who have a problem with alcohol will try and cover it up - problems are not always visible but if we are honest we can spot the signs:

  • not being able to socialise without a drink    
  • struggling at work or in education because of hangovers    
  • missing days at work, college or university    
  • poor concentration    
  • spending a lot of money on alcohol    
  • relationships with family and friends are strained    
  • feeling irritable without a drink    
  • becoming defensive or angry when challenged about drink    
  • hiding drinking from others

Many people recover from alcohol problems. The first step is always to acknowledge that there is a problem. This is a very big step but there are different ways of approaching this.

Some people are able to cut down on their drinking themselves, or with the support of a friend or family member. Others go to their GP who will offer advice or direct them to appropriate counselling or treatment services that can help.

Find an alcohol service to help you or someone you care about

Helping someone with an alcohol problem

Harmful use of alcohol doesn't just affect the drinker, it also affects the lives of those closest to them.

If you are worried about someone you care about e.g. a partner, relative or friend, who may be experiencing problems with alcohol, the first step is acknowledging the problem.

If you want to help you need to:

  • Appreciate that their drinking is causing problems    
  • Be direct    
  • Refuse to make excuses for them    
  • Accept that you cannot rationalise their reasons for drinking    
  • Recognise that putting additional pressures on them is not helpful

It can be difficult for someone to admit they need help. Offering to accompany them to visit their GP, who may offer advice and support or will direct them to appropriate services or groups which can help, is a good place to begin.

Helping someone to come to terms with their drinking is challenging. But by accessing information and support you can help them make the changes that can result in reducing the harm caused to themselves, their family and friends.