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Illustration of alcohol choices in a head.

Illustration of alcohol choices in a head.
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How alcohol affects your health

7-minute read

Many of us drink alcohol to relax and socialise. But drinking too much alcohol can negatively affect your physical and mental health, your actions, and your decision-making. There are many short and long-term side effects of alcohol consumption.

Why is alcohol a health issue?

Many Australians drink some alcohol. Some people drink alcohol in amounts that are harmful to their health. This kind of drinking can cause death, disease, and injury. This is a major factor in ill health and social harm in Australia.

One standard drink contains 10 grams of pure alcohol, which is found in (approximately):

  • 285ml full-strength beer or cider
  • 375ml mid-strength beer
  • 425ml light-strength beer
  • 100ml wine
  • 1 nip (30ml) of spirits

No level of alcohol consumption can be considered safe. To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy adults:

  • drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week
  • drink no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day

But some people need to take more care. You are at greater risk of harm from alcohol if you are:

  • under the age of 18 years
  • older than 65 years
  • taking other medicines or drugs
  • engaging in a risky activity such as driving or operating machinery

During pregnancy, and while breastfeeding, no level of drinking is considered safe for the baby.

Drinking heavily can put you at risk of short-term injury or illness. The negative side effects of alcohol can also accumulate, harming your health over your lifetime.

To avoid the negative effects of alcohol, you should practice safe drinking and manage your alcohol intake.

What are the short-term health effects of alcohol?

In Australia, 1 in 3 people drink more than they should on a single occasion. This is commonly referred to as ‘binge drinking’ (drinking more than 4 standard drinks on any one occasion).

In the short term, drinking too much alcohol can cause side effects, including:

  • dizziness
  • lack of judgement
  • loss of coordination
  • memory loss
  • vomiting
  • accidental injury (to yourself or others)
  • being in a road accident
  • deliberately harming yourself or others
  • alcohol poisoning (which can be fatal)
  • fatigue (tiredness)
  • headaches
  • hangover

What are the long-term health effects of alcohol?

Drinking more than 2 standard drinks a day can seriously affect your physical and mental health over your lifetime.

The side effects of alcohol include dependence and addiction, especially in people who have depression or anxiety. It can also increase the risk of suicide.

Regular, heavy alcohol consumption can also result in unhealthy weight gain. Even drinking small amounts of alcohol increases your cancer risk.

The negative effects of alcohol can impact your body long term. Here are some ways that regular heavy drinking can affect your physical health.

Excessive alcohol consumption is also a major factor in road and other accidents, violence, and crime. According to the National Drug Household Survey in 2019:

  • About 1 in 5 alcohol drinkers aged 14 or older had put themselves or others at risk of injury or harm while drinking in the previous 12 months.
  • Over 1 in 5 Australians aged 14 years or older had been a victim of an alcohol related incident in 2019. This included many types of abuse, including verbal or physical abuse.
  • Adults aged 18-24 were more likely to binge drink than the rest of the population. Men were more likely to binge drink than women.

What is a hangover?

A hangover is the experience of unpleasant symptoms after drinking alcohol. Usually, the more you drink, the worse the hangover will be. Some people get a hangover after just one drink. Others may drink heavily and not experience a hangover at all. It depends on your body, and how it processes alcohol.

The symptoms of a hangover can include the following.

  • Headache: Alcohol makes your blood vessels expand, which can lead to a headache.
  • Dehydration: Alcohol is a diuretic (meaning it removes fluids from the body), so drinking excessively can lead to dehydration. It is the dehydration that causes many of the symptoms of a hangover, including thirst, dizziness, and light headedness.
  • Feeling ill: Alcohol triggers the immune system to release chemicals that cause loss of appetite, and problems with concentration and memory.
  • Nausea, vomiting and aching tummy: Alcohol irritates the lining of the stomach and increases the amount of acid in it.
  • Shakiness: Alcohol can cause your blood sugar level to fall, which can make you weak, tired and shaky.
  • Tiredness: Even though you may fall asleep when you drink, alcohol prevents the body from reaching the deeper stages of sleep. You may wake in the middle of the night after drinking heavily. You may even wake up and still have some alcohol in your system the next morning. This can delay the onset of a hangover until later that day. This means you may not be safe to drive or operate machinery.

Can you 'cure' a hangover?

Hangover cures are generally a myth. There are no cures for a hangover. All you can do is take steps to ease the symptoms and wait until it goes away.

  • Drink water to treat dehydration. Don't drink any more alcohol — it will make you feel worse.
  • Try to eat some simple food to boost your blood sugar and settle your stomach.
  • Take pain relief if you have a headache or other pain.
  • If you can, go back to bed to sleep through the hangover.

Tips to avoid a hangover

To avoid a hangover, don't drink more than you know your body can cope with. If you're not sure how much that is, be careful. Drink in moderation.

In Australia, alcoholic beverages are required by law to state the approximate number of standard drinks they contain on the label. This includes all bottles, cans, and casks.

Once you know how much alcohol a standard drink contains, you can keep track of what you're consuming. You may be surprised! A couple of glasses of wine can quickly add up to a lot more than you intended to drink.

To reduce your chances of getting a hangover:

  • practice safe drinking by pacing yourself
  • don’t drink on an empty stomach (eat before and during the drinking period)
  • drink water while consuming alcohol, and before going to sleep

Resources and support

  • For trusted information about reducing the risk of alcohol use you can consult the NHMRC Alcohol Guidelines.
  • The Daybreak App, developed by Hello Sunday Morning, can support you to change your relationship with alcohol.
  • For free and confidential advice about alcohol and other drugs, call the National Alcohol and Other Drug hotline on 1800 250 015. It will automatically direct you to the Alcohol and Drug Information Service in your state or territory.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2022

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