Approximately one in ten of the population of the UK suffers from alcoholism:
- Craving , a strong need or compulsion to drink
- Loss of control , the frequent inability to stop drinking once started
- Tolerance , the need for increasing amounts of alcohol to feel any effect
- Psychological compulsion to drink , an inability to control the desire to drink even though a decision may have been made
to stop drinking.
You may have noticed that you are:
- More concerned with drinking than dealing with important matters
- Angry if confronted about your drinking
- Secretive and evasive
- Increasingly intoxicated or appearing to be under the influence
- Tired, irritable and looking less well than is normal
You may feel:
- Frustrated and hurt
- Unsure how to get help
- Concerned for your well being
- Worried about the future
- Frightened by your behaviour
- Feel that you are beyond help
How much is too much?
Current UK guidelines recommend that men don't drink more than three or four units of alcohol a
day, and that women limit their intake to two or three units a day. You shouldn't save up units through the
week and use them to binge at the weekend, and at least one day a week should be
If you do have an episode of heavy drinking, as a short term measure, you shouldn't drink alcohol
for 48 hours.
Strength and units
One unit is 8 grams, or about 10ml, of pure alcohol - regardless of how diluted it is. Below is a
list of some common drinks and how many units they have in them.
- One pint of strong lager (alcohol 5% vol) = 3 units
- One pint of standard strength lager (alcohol 3 - 3.5% vol) = 2 units
- One 275ml bottle of an alcopop (alcohol 5.5% vol) = 1.5 units
- One standard (175ml) glass of wine (alcohol 12% vol) = 2 units
- One measure (25ml) of a spirit strength drink = 1 unit
Units for women
The recommended limits are lower for women than for men because the body composition of women has
less water than men. So, even if a man and woman weigh the same and are of a similar size, the woman will
tend to get drunk faster.
Some experts also think that women develop liver disease at lower levels of drinking than men,
although this appears to only be the case in higher levels of alcohol consumption.
Some people who drink frequently or in large quantities can become addicted to alcohol. Doctors use
a number of techniques to diagnose patients with drink problems. They may ask you how much and how often you
drink and whether you have "blackouts". You may be asked if you have tried to cut down, whether you feel
guilty about your drinking, or whether you have a drink in the morning.
According to the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a person is considered to be dependent on alcohol
when they have experienced three or more of the following symptoms during a year.
- A strong urge to drink, difficulty controlling how much they drink, or difficulty
- Physical withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, agitation and nausea when they try to
- A growing tolerance to alcohol - needing larger quantities to get the same
- Gradual neglect of other activities.
- Persistent drinking even though it is obviously causing harm.
Alcohol abuse, or problem drinking, happens when a person is not dependent on alcohol, but is
drinking enough to cause themselves actual physical or psychological harm.
A small amount of alcohol will relax you and make you feel less anxious. But alcohol is a
depressant of the central nervous system. In increasing amounts it suppresses the part of your brain that
controls judgement, resulting in a loss of inhibitions. It also affects your physical co-ordination, causing
blurred vision, slurred speech and loss of balance. Drinking a very large amount at one time (binge drinking)
can lead to unconsciousness, coma, and even death. Vomiting while unconscious can lead to death by
Alcohol is involved in a large proportion of fatal road accidents, assaults and incidents of
Alcohol can be a dangerous drug. Drinking too much too often will cause physical damage, increase
the risk of getting some diseases, and make other diseases worse. Excessive drinking over time is associated
- hepatitis and cirrhosis of the liver
- gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) or pancreatitis (inflammation of the
- high blood pressure (which can lead to stroke)
- certain types of cancer, including mouth and throat
- damage to the brain
- heart failure
- neurological problems such as epilepsy
- certain types of vitamin deficiency
Excessive drinking has also been linked to:
- sexual problems
- muscle disease
- skin problems
Alcohol and pregnancy
Women who drink heavily during pregnancy are at risk of having babies with a condition called fetal
alcohol syndrome. This can result in growth deficiencies, nervous system problems, lowered intelligence, and
facial abnormalities in the child. It is also called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder - all the symptoms are
not always present and can vary in how serious they are.
There is some evidence that pregnant women who drink 10 to 15 units a week are more likely to have
underweight babies. It is not known if there is an absolutely safe limit for drinking during pregnancy, but
research indicates that it may be wise to avoid alcohol altogether.
Although alcohol initially makes people feel relaxed, long term excessive use can ultimately
increase anxiety and cause depression. It is also related to problems with sleeping, mood-swings, violence
and suicide (about two-thirds of suicide attempts are thought to involve alcohol).
If you think you're drinking too much, keep a "drinking diary", noting how much alcohol you drink
each week. It will reveal whether you are drinking within safe guidelines and help you identify the
situations that you need to avoid to cut down your drinking.
Below are some tips to help you cut down.
- Go out later, so you start drinking later.
- Replace your "usual" drink with one containing less alcohol.
- Skip the "quick drink" at lunchtime or after work.
- Have at least two alcohol-free days a week.
- Do something other than going to the pub.
- Drink more slowly or have non-alcoholic drinks between alcoholic ones.
- Buy beers and wines with lower alcohol content, and keep a supply of non-alcoholic drinks at
- Set yourself a limit of, for example three to four units (men) or two to three (women) for any
- Find other ways to relax.
Cutting down may not be enough if you are alcohol dependent. Confidential advice and support is
available through your GP, and may involve a community alcohol team or specialist consultant care. There are
also organisations such as Alcohol Concern and Alcoholics Anonymous that help many people (see
When someone heavily dependent on alcohol stops drinking (detoxification), they sometimes get
withdrawal symptoms. These include headaches, nausea, sweating, and tremors. Sometimes more serious symptoms
like confusion, paranoia, and having fits or hallucinations can occur.
To prevent withdrawal symptoms, a chronic heavy drinker may be prescribed medication such as
diazepam (eg Valium) or chlordiazepoxide for a few days after stopping drinking.
Below are some examples of other drug treatments that are sometimes used to help people dependent
- Disulfiram causes very unpleasant effects if even a small amount of alcohol is consumed.
Patients are told that they cannot drink at all when taking this drug. Consuming large amounts of alcohol
can occasionally lead to arrhythmias, low blood pressure and collapse. It is prescribed under specialist
- Acamprosate influences transmitters in the brain to reduce alcohol cravings. It is prescribed
to people after detoxification. It may cause side-effects such as headache, diarrhoea and
- Naltrexone is a drug used to treat people addicted to opioids such as heroine. It is sometimes
prescribed by specialists to reduce the chances of a relapse in alcohol dependent people who have stopped
drinking. People with chronic alcohol dependence are often malnourished, and vitamin supplements are