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Alcohol: What's the Harm?

According to Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Director Dr. George F. Koob, "Alcohol is not a benign substance and there are many ways it can contribute to mortality. The current findings suggest that alcohol-related deaths involving injuries, overdoses, and chronic diseases are increasing across a wide swath of the population. The report is a wakeup call to the growing threat alcohol poses to public health."

There is a wide range of short and long-term consequences associated with alcohol use. For some individuals, any amount of drinking could be harmful.

Fatalities and injuries. Alcohol-related deaths are increasing in the United States. Alcohol is a factor in about 30 percent of suicides, about 40 percent of fatal burn injuries, about 50 percent of fatal drownings and of homicides, and about 65 percent of fatal falls. Around 29 percent of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities involve alcohol. The rate of alcohol-related emergency department visits is increasing. About one-third of injuries treated at trauma centers are alcohol related. In addition, a significant number of sexual assaults involve alcohol use.

Alcohol-related blackouts. Blackouts are gaps in a person’s memory for events that occurred while they were intoxicated. These gaps happen when a person drinks enough alcohol to temporarily block the transfer of memories from short- to long-term storage—known as memory consolidation—in a brain area called the hippocampus.

Health problems

Drinking is associated with a number of health problems and can make certain chronic health problems worse. Half of liver disease deaths in the United States are caused by alcohol, and alcohol-associated liver disease is increasing, particularly among women and young people. Research has shown an important association between alcohol consumption and breast cancer—for each 10 grams of alcohol consumed (less than 1 standard drink) on an average daily basis, a woman’s chance of developing postmenopausal breast cancer increases by around 9 percent. Individuals who carry certain gene variants associated with alcohol-related flushing (e.g., the ALDH2-2 variant) are at an elevated risk of esophageal cancer from alcohol consumption. Research has also shown that alcohol use increases the risk of liver disease, cardiovascular diseases, depression, and stomach bleeding, as well as cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum. People who use alcohol may also have problems managing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, and sleep disorders. And people who use alcohol are more likely to engage in unsafe sexual behavior, putting themselves and others at risk for sexually transmitted infections and unintentional pregnancies.

Birth defects

Prenatal alcohol exposure can result in brain damage and other serious problems in babies. The effects are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASD, and can result in lifelong physical, cognitive, and behavioral problems. Because there is no known safe level of alcohol for a developing baby, women who are pregnant or might be pregnant should not drink.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD)

In the past, the American Psychiatric Association described two distinct disorders - alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, however, now alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are classified into a single disorder called alcohol use disorder (AUD) with subclassifications of mild, moderate, and severe.


Some signs of AUD are continuing to drink even though it is causing trouble with your family or at work, drinking more than you intended, having to drink more than before to get a desired effect, being unable to stop drinking after repeated attempts, or continuing to drink despite negative consequences.


Signs of AUD may also include drinking to alleviate negative emotions such as feeling "low," anxious, uneasy, unhappy, unwell, dissatisfied with life, or other negative emotions that were caused or worsened by alcohol use. 


Having any of these symptoms may be a cause for concern. The more symptoms one has, the more urgent the need for change.

Beyond these physical and mental health risks, frequent alcohol use also is linked with personal problems, such as losing one’s driver’s license or having relationship troubles.​

It's up to you as to whether and when to change your drinking. If you drink alcohol, you donʾt have to wait until you develop alcohol use disorder (AUD) or other alcohol-related problems to evaluate your relationship with alcohol. Even participating in events such as Dry January and Sober October can offer the opportunity to take a break from alcohol to understand how it is affecting your life. Other people may be able to help, but in the end, it’s your decision. Listing your reasons to stop drinking, may help.

What are some reasons why you might want to stop drinking alcohol?

  • To improve my health

  • To improve my relationships

  • To avoid hangovers

  • To do better at work or in school

  • To save money

  • To lose weight or get fit

  • To avoid more serious problems

  • To meet my own personal standards

  • Add additional reasons you have


Alcohol consumption is increasing among women despite increasing evidence that even one drink per day of alcohol can contribute to an increase risk of breast cancer for women. 

Researchers noted that studies have shown the role of alcohol in deaths is vastly underreported.

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