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FAQs on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (page 3)

— National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Updated on Oct 15, 2009

13. What is a safe level of drinking?

For most adults, moderate alcohol use--up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people--causes few if any problems. (One drink equals one 12-ounce bottle of beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

Certain people should not drink at all, however:

 

  • Women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • People who plan to drive or engage in other activities that require alertness and skill (such as driving a car)
  • People taking certain over-the-counter or prescription medications
  • People with medical conditions that can be made worse by drinking  
  • Recovering alcoholics
  • People younger than age 21.  

(See also "Publications" Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol With Medicines and Drinking and Your Pregnancy; Alcohol Alert No. 27: Alcohol-Medication Interactions; Alcohol Alert No 50: Fetal Alcohol Exposure and the Brain; and Alcohol Alert No. 52: Alcohol and Transportation Safety)

14. Is it safe to drink during pregnancy?

No, alcohol can harm the baby of a mother who drinks during pregnancy. Although the highest risk is to babies whose mothers drink heavily, it is not clear yet whether there is any completely safe level of alcohol during pregnancy. For this reason, the U.S. Surgeon General released advisories in 1981 and again in 2005 urging women who are pregnant or may become pregnant to abstain from alcohol (http://www.lhvpn.net/hhspress.html). The damage caused by prenatal alcohol includes a range of physical, behavioral, and learning problems in babies Babies most severely affected have what is called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). These babies may have abnormal facial features and severe learning disabilities. Babies can also be born with mild disabilities without the facial changes typical of FAS.

(See also "Publications" Alcohol Alert No.50: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Brain; "Pamphlets and Brochures," Drinking and Your Pregnancy.)

15. Does alcohol affect older people differently?

Alcohol's effects do vary with age. Slower reaction times, problems with hearing and seeing, and a lower tolerance to alcohol's effects put older people at higher risk for falls, car crashes, and other types of injuries that may result from drinking.

Older people also tend to take more medicines than younger people. Mixing alcohol with over-the-counter or prescription medications can be very dangerous, even fatal. (See the question 18,  "When taking medications, must you stop drinking?" for more information.) In addition, alcohol can make many of the medical conditions common in older people, including high blood pressure and ulcers, more serious. Physical changes associated with aging can make older people feel "high" even after drinking only small amounts of alcohol. So even if there is no medical reason to avoid alcohol, older men and women should limit themselves to one drink per day. (See also "Publications/Pamphlets and Brochures" Age Page: Alcohol Use and Abuse.)

16. Does alcohol affect women differently?

Yes, alcohol affects women differently than men. Women become more impaired than men do after drinking the same amount of alcohol, even when differences in body weight are taken into account. This is because women's bodies have less water than men's bodies. Because alcohol mixes with body water, a given amount of alcohol becomes more highly concentrated in a woman's body than in a man's. In other words, it would be like dropping the same amount of alcohol into a much smaller pail of water. That is why the recommended drinking limit for women is lower than for men. (See the question 13, "What is a safe level of drinking?" for recommended limits.)

In addition, chronic alcohol abuse takes a heavier physical toll on women than on men. Alcohol dependence and related medical problems, such as brain, heart, and liver damage, progress more rapidly in women than in men. (See also "Publications," Alcohol Alert No. 62: Alcohol-An Important Women's Health Issue.)

17. Is alcohol good for your heart?

Studies have shown that moderate drinkers are less likely to die from one form of heart disease than are people who do not drink any alcohol or who drink more.

If you are a nondrinker, however, you should not start drinking solely to benefit your heart. You can guard against heart disease by exercising and eating foods that are low in fat. And if you are pregnant, planning to become pregnant, have been diagnosed as alcoholic, or have another medical condition that could make alcohol use harmful, you should not drink.

If you can safely drink alcohol and you choose to drink, do so in moderation. Heavy drinking can actually increase the risk of heart failure, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as cause many other medical problems, such as liver cirrhosis. (See also "Publications," Alcohol Alert No. 16: Moderate Drinking and Alcohol Alert No. 45: Alcohol Coronary Heart Disease.)

18. When taking medications, must you stop drinking?

Possibly. More than 150 medications interact harmfully with alcohol. These interactions may result in increased risk of illness, injury, and even death. Alcohol's effects are heightened by medicines that depress the central nervous system, such as sleeping pills, antihistamines, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and some painkillers. In addition, medicines for certain disorders, including diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, can have harmful interactions with alcohol. If you are taking any over-the-counter or prescription medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can safely drink alcohol. (See also "Publications," Harmful Interactions; Mixing Alcohol with Medicines; Alcohol Alert No. 27: Alcohol-Medication Interactions.)

19. How can a person get help for an alcohol problem?

There are many national and local resources that can help. The National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service provides a toll-free telephone number, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), offering various resource information. Through this service you can speak directly to a representative concerning substance abuse treatment, request printed material on alcohol or other drugs, or obtain local substance abuse treatment referral information in your State (see Treatment Referral Information).

Many people also find support groups a helpful aid to recovery. The following list includes a variety of resources:

Al-Anon/Alateen
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA)
National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI)

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