Alcoholism is both a physical and mental illness, which causes people to drink alcohol despite it resulting in negative consequences on their lives. It affects hundreds of thousands of people in the UK. Although it is not a curable illness, it can be effectively treated and managed.
Alcohol misuse means regularly drinking more than the lower-risk limits of alcohol consumption.
What are the lower-risk alcohol limits?
What is a unit of alcohol?
A unit of alcohol is 10ml of pure alcohol, which is about:
- half a pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%)
- a single small shot measure (25ml) of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)
A small glass (125ml) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol.
Recommended lower-risk alcohol limits:
- not regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week
- if you drink as much as 14 units a week, it's best to spread this evenly over 3 or more days
- if you're trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, it's a good idea to have several alcohol-free days each week
Regular or frequent drinking means drinking alcohol most weeks. The risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis.
Risks of alcohol abuse
Short-term risks of alcohol abuse
The short-term risks of alcohol misuse include:
- accidents and injuries requiring hospital treatment, such as a head injury
- violent behaviour and being a victim of violence
- unprotected sex that could potentially lead to unplanned pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- loss of personal possessions, such as wallets, keys or mobile phones
- alcohol poisoning – this may lead to vomiting, seizures (fits) and falling unconscious
Long-term risks of alcohol abuse
Persistent alcohol misuse increases your risk of serious health conditions, including:
- heart disease
- liver disease
- liver cancer
- bowel cancer
- mouth cancer
- breast cancer
As well as causing serious health problems, long-term alcohol misuse can lead to social problems, such as unemployment, divorce, domestic abuse and homelessness.
If someone loses control over their drinking and has an excessive desire to drink, it's known as dependent drinking (alcoholism).
Dependent drinking usually affects a person's quality of life and relationships, but they may not always find it easy to see or accept this.
Severely dependent drinkers are often able to tolerate very high levels of alcohol in amounts that would dangerously affect or even kill some people.
A dependent drinker usually experiences physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms if they suddenly cut down or stop drinking, including:
- hand tremors – 'the shakes'
- seeing things that aren't real (visual hallucinations)
- difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
This often leads to "relief drinking" to avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Visit the NHS website to read more about the risks of alcohol misuse.
Are you drinking too much?
You could be misusing alcohol if:
- you feel you should cut down on your drinking
- other people have been criticising your drinking
- you feel guilty or bad about your drinking
- you need a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover
Someone you know may be misusing alcohol if:
- they regularly exceed the lower-risk daily limit for alcohol
- they're sometimes unable to remember what happened the night before because of their drinking
- they fail to do what was expected of them as a result of their drinking – for example, missing an appointment or work because of being drunk or hungover
If you are feeling concerned about your drinking or someone else's, a good first step is to visit your GP. They will be able to discuss the services and treatments available.
Your alcohol intake may be assessed using tests, such as the:
- Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (PDF, 224kb) – widely used screening test that can help determine whether you need to change your drinking habits
- Fast Alcohol Screening Test (PDF, 388kb) – a simpler test to check whether your drinking has reached dangerous levels
As well as the NHS, there are a number of charities and support groups across the UK that provide support and advice for people with an alcohol misuse problem.
- Addaction is a UK-wide treatment agency that helps individuals, families and communities manage the effects of drug and alcohol misuse.
- Adfam is a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Adfam operates an online message board and a database of local support groups.
- Alcohol Concern
- Alcoholics Anonymous – helpline 0800 9177 650
- Al-Anon Family Groups – helpline 020 7403 0888
- Drinkaware – runs the national drink helpline, Drinkline on 0300 123 1110
- National Association for Children of Alcoholics - information, advice and support for everyone affected by a parent’s drinking.
- SMART Recovery groups help participants decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques to support recovery.
For a full list of charities and support groups, see our page on alcohol support.
Treating alcohol abuse
How alcohol misuse is treated depends on how much alcohol a person is drinking. Treatment options include:
- counselling – including self-help groups and talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- detoxification – this involves a nurse or doctor supporting you to safely stop drinking; this can be done by helping you slowly cut down over time or by giving you medicines to prevent withdrawal symptoms
There are 2 main types of medicines to help people stop drinking. The first is to help stop withdrawal symptoms, and is given in reducing doses over a short period of time. The most common of these medicines is chlordiazapoxide (Librium).
The second is a medication to reduce any urge you may have to drink. The most common medications used for this are acamprosate and naltrexone. These are both given at a fixed dose, and you'll usually be on them for 6 to 12 months.
Visit the NHS website to read more about the treatment options for alcohol misuse.