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Alcohol: What You Don't Know Can Harm You

— National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Updated on Apr 6, 2011

If you are like many Americans, you may drink alcohol occasionally. Or, like others, you may drink moderate amounts of alcohol on a more regular basis. If you are a woman or someone over the age of 65, this means you have no more than one drink per day; if you are a man, this means you have no more than two drinks per day. Drinking at these levels usually is not associated with health risks and may help prevent certain forms of heart disease.

But did you know that even moderate drinking, under certain circumstances, can be risky?  If you drink at more than moderate levels, you may be putting yourself at risk for serious problems with your health as well as problems with family, friends, and coworkers. This booklet explains some of the problems that can be caused by drinking that you may not have considered.

What Is a Drink?

A standard drink is:

  • One 12-ounce bottle of beer* or wine cooler
  • One 5-ounce glass of wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.

*Different beers have different alcohol content. Malt liquor has a higher alcohol content than most other brewed beverages.

Drinking and Driving

It may surprise you to learn that you don’t need to drink much alcohol before your driving ability is affected. For example, certain driving skills can be impaired by blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) as low as 0.02 percent. (The BAC refers to the amount of alcohol in the blood.) A 160-pound man will have a BAC of about 0.04 percent 1 hour after drinking two 12-ounce beers or two other standard drinks on an empty stomach (see the box, “What Is a Drink?”). And the more alcohol you drink, the more impaired your driving skills will be. Although most States set the BAC limit for adults who drive after drinking at 0.08 percent, driving skills are affected at much lower levels.

Interactions With Medications

Drinking alcohol while taking certain medications can cause problems. In fact, there are more than 150 medications that should not be mixed with alcohol. For example, if you are taking antihistamines for a cold or allergy and drink alcohol, the alcohol will increase the drowsiness that the medicine alone can cause, making driving or operating machinery even more dangerous. And if you are taking large doses of the painkiller acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and drinking alcohol, you are risking serious liver damage. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before drinking any amount of alcohol if you are taking any over-the-counter or prescription medicines.

Social and Legal Problems

The more heavily you drink, the greater the potential for problems at home, at work, with friends, and even with strangers. These problems may include:

  • Arguments with or separation from your spouse and other family members;
  • Strained relationships with coworkers;
  • Absence from or lateness to work with increasing frequency;
  • Loss of employment due to decreased productivity; and
  • Committing or being the victim of violence.

Alcohol-Related Birth Defects

If you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, you should not drink alcohol. Drinking alcohol while you are pregnant can cause a range of birth defects, and children exposed to alcohol before birth can have lifelong learning and behavioral problems. The most serious problem that can be caused by drinking during pregnancy is fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Children born with FAS have severe physical, mental, and behavioral problems. Because scientists do not know exactly how much alcohol it takes to cause alcohol-related birth defects, it is best not to drink any alcohol during this time.

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