Alcohol and health

Alcohol should always be enjoyed with moderation, as part of a responsible drinking culture. Excessive use of alcohol has harmful effects on health, and in certain situations one should not drink any alcohol at all.

What is alcohol?

The alcohol included in all alcoholic beverages, including wine, spirits and beer, is called ethanol or ethyl alcohol. The chemical formula for ethanol is C2H5OH, in other words ethanol is composed of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Ethanol is produced either by fermentation or distillation.

The alcohol percentage by volume tells how many milliliters of pure alcohol each 100 ml of liquid contains. For example, one liter of wine with 14 % vol. of alcohol includes 1,4 deciliters of pure alcohol.

Enjoy with moderation

Alcohol should always be enjoyed with moderation, avoiding binge drinking.

A small amount of alcohol usually reduces tension, lifts social inhibitions and prevents drowsiness. However, the more intoxicated one gets, the more it affects both physical and intellectual performance and the bigger the probability of injuries or accidents.

Irrespective of the type of alcoholic beverage consumed, they all include ethyl alcohol, which has harmful effects on one’s health when consumed in excess. Drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing diseases like liver cirrhosis, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases. Even occasional use can cause acute problems, for example in the form of accidents.

In addition, excessive consumption can affect social relationships, have economic effects or cause harm to the people around you.

In many situations one should not drink any alcohol at all, for example if you are pregnant, driving or under legal drinking age.

The guidelines for moderate drinking vary in different countries and can be found here.

When to abstain from alcohol?

There are situations when one should not drink any alcohol at all.

During pregnancy and breastfeeding

  • Heavy drinking has a negative effect on fertility in both women and men.
  • No threshold for safe drinking has been established during pregnancy and therefore it is best to stop drinking when planning to conceive and when pregnant.
  • Heavy drinking during pregnancy causes a lot of risks, and may at worst lead to permanent damage to the fetus’s organs and nervous system, causing a condition called Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
  • Likewise there is no threshold for safe drinking during breastfeeding. Occasional and moderate alcohol consumption is generally not considered to prevent breastfeeding, but handling the child when intoxicated is risky. Heavy binge drinking during breastfeeding is harmful both for the child and the mother, and should be avoided.

When below legal drinking age

  • The younger the person is, the bigger the risks of alcohol. Young people are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of drinking and are more likely to have accidents, suffer alcohol poisoning or develop alcohol dependence.
  • It is best to delay the first experiments with alcohol as long as possible, because drinking even small amounts increases the risk for adverse effects. A history of early alcohol abuse also affects later behavior.

When using medicine or suffering from a condition

  • Alcohol can increase or reduce the effect of medications. With certain medications one should not drink alcohol altogether.
  • Drinking alcohol is also associated with a risk of developing problems for mental health and may be related for example with depression.

When driving

  • Even a small amount of alcohol in your blood affects negatively your ability to drive and increases the risk of accidents. In most EU countries the legal limit is exceeded if your blood alcohol content exceeds 0,5 grams per liter. On average, each drink increases the blood alcohol content by 0,2 to 0,3 grams per liter.
  • Especially young drivers face an increased risk of accidents even at low blood alcohol levels, because alcohol affects most those skills, which are not yet automated through experience.

At work

  • Unauthorized use of alcohol and being intoxicated are not appropriate at work.
  • If your job includes situations in which alcohol is used, it is worth remembering that each person also represents his/her employer.
  • If you recognize a colleague with an alcohol abuse problem, intervention and offering assistance for example by means of occupational health care is advisable.

How does alcohol affect your body?

Alcohol is a stimulant and intoxicant, which slows down your brain functions. When enjoying alcoholic beverages, the alcohol they contain is absorbed into the blood and spreads rapidly throughout the body.

How alcohol affects you depends on how much, what, when and how you drink. Intoxication can be mitigated by drinking mild alcoholic beverages, drinking at a slow pace and eating before enjoying alcohol. Also your general health, body composition, age and gender have an impact.

Alcohol metabolization is mostly done by your liver. Alcohol is broken down by the body at an average hourly rate of 1,3 milliliters (or 1 gram) of pure alcohol per 10 kilograms of weight. If you weigh 70 kg, it takes about two hours before a 12 cl glass of wine, a 4 cl serving of strong spirits or one 0,33 liter bottle of beer is removed from your body.

Drinking in moderation or too much?

If you have doubts about your own alcohol consumption or the alcohol consumption of someone close to you, you can take an audit test, downloadable for example here.


Find more information, advice and tests relating to alcohol consumption on your local sites or globally on World Health Organization’s site.