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Health risks of alcohol use

Beer, wine, and hard liquor all contain alcohol. If you drink any of these, you use alcohol. Your drinking patterns may vary, depending on who you are with, what you are doing, and other things.

You probably already know that abusing alcohol (drinking too much) can cause many health problems. But even responsible drinking patterns can lead to health problems and other problems in your everyday life.

Alternate Names

Alcoholism - risks; Alcohol abuse - risks; Alcohol dependence - risks; Risky drinking - risks

Alcohol Use and Your Health

Long-term abuse of alcohol increases your chance of:

Even what we call responsible drinking can lead to high blood pressure in some people.

You likely already know that alcohol can affect your thinking and judgment each time you drink. Long-term alcohol abuse damages brain cells. This can lead to lasting damage to your memory, thinking, and the way you behave.

 Damage to nerves from alcohol abuse can cause many problems. Some of these are:

  • Numbness or painful "pins and needles" feelings in your arms or legs
  • Problems with erections in men
  • Leaking urine or having a hard time starting to pass urine

Drinking during pregnancy can harm the growing baby. Severe birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome may occur.

How Alcohol Use Can Affect Your Life

Often, people who are sad, depressed, nervous, or often worried drink to make themselves feel better or to block these feelings. But alcohol can:

  • Make these problems worse over time
  • Make sleep problems worse
  • Increase the risk of suicide

Families are often affected when someone in the home abuses alcohol. Violence and conflict in the home is much more likely when a family member is abusing alcohol. Children who grow up in a home where alcohol abuse is present are more likely to:

  • Do poorly in school
  • Be depressed and have problems with anxiety and low self-esteem
  • Have marriages that end in divorce

Drinking too much alcohol even once can harm you or others. It can lead to:

  • Car accidents
  • Risky sex habits, which may lead to unplanned or unwanted pregnancy infections (STIs), and sexual assault or rape
  • Falls, drowning, and other accidents
  • Suicide
  • Violence and homicide

What You Can Do

First, ask yourself, what type of drinker you are ?

Even if you are a responsible drinker, remember that drinking too much just one time can be harmful.

If you are a risky drinker, watch your drinking patterns more closely. Learn some ways to cut back on drinking and ask your health care provider for help.

If you cannot control your drinking or if drinking is becoming harmful to you or others around you, seek help from:


In the clinic. Alcohol use. Ann Intern Med. 2009 Mar 3;150(5).

O'Connor PG. Alcohol abuse and dependence.In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed.Philadelphia,PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 32.

Schuckit MA. Alcohol-use disorders. Lancet. 2009;373:492-501.

US Preventive Services Task Force. Recommendation statement: Screening and behavioral counseling interventions in primary care to reduce alcohol misuse. Rockville, MD; April 2004. Accessed February 19, 2012.

Updated: 5/17/2012

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.

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