You don't have to be an alcoholic to be at risk of damaging your health. Regularly drinking just above recommended levels can be harmful.
Most people who regularly drink more than the NHS recommends don't see any harmful effects at first.
Alcohol’s hidden harms usually only emerge after a number of years. And by then, serious health problems can have developed.
The effects of alcohol on your health will depend on how much you drink. The more you drink, the greater the health risks.
What can I do if I need support or help?
If you need support or help around alcohol use in West Sussex, we can point you in the right direction.
Alcohol services are provided by a range of organisations and managed by the West Sussex Drug and Alcohol Action Team.
There is also a lot of support and help to the family, partners and friends of people who are using alcohol.
Find out more about the services available in West Sussex and how to access them.
Do you know what the risks of alcohol are?
The effects of alcohol are different for each person, and for men and women.
The amount you drink, how often you drink and how long you’ve been drinking all make a difference. And most of the harm caused can’t be seen or felt until it’s too late.
If you regularly drink more than the NHS advises over a long period, there are the following risks.
- men could be four times more likely to have high blood pressure
- women could be three times more likely to suffer a stroke
- cancer of the mouth, throat cancer, cancer of the oesophagus or larynx, and breast cancer in women
- increased risk of heart disease and stroke
- liver damage, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer
- depression, memory loss, brain damage or dementia
- stomach damage
- potentially fatal alcohol poisoning.
Although there is no completely safe level of drinking, the NHS advises that the risk of harm is low if you don’t regularly drink more than the lower risk levels.
Know your limits - do you know how much you can drink safely?
The NHS recommends:
- Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units a day.
- Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day.
'Regularly' means drinking these amounts every day or most days of the week.
However, there are times when you will be at risk even after 1-2 units. For example with strenuous exercise, operating heavy machinery, driving or if you are on certain medication.
If you are pregnant or trying to conceive, it is recommended that you avoid drinking alcohol. But if you do drink, it should be no more than 1-2 units once or twice a week and avoid getting drunk. But what is a unit?
There is one unit in each of these:
- Half pint of regular beer, lager or cider
- 1 very small glass of wine (9%)
- 1 single measure of spirit
- 1 small glass of sherry
- 1 single measure of aperitifs
And each of these has more than one unit:
- A pint of ‘regular’ beer, lager or cider = 2 units
- A pint of ‘strong’ or ‘premium’ beer, lager or cider = 3 units
- Alcopop or a 275ml bottle of regular lager = 1.5 units
- 440ml can of ‘regular’ lager or cider = 2 units
- 440ml can of ‘super strength’ lager = 4 units
- 250ml glass of wine (12%) = 3 units
Bottle of wine (12.5%) = 9 units
How can I reduce my risks?
Here are some helpful tips:
- If you are bored or stressed have a workout or go for a walk instead of drinking
- Avoid going to the pub after work
- Plan activities and tasks at the times you usually drink
- When you do drink set yourself a limit and stick to it
- Have your first drink after starting to eat
- Quench your thirst with non-alcoholic drinks before and in between alcoholic drinks
- Avoid drinking in rounds or in large groups
- Switch to low alcoholic beer or lager
Avoid or limit the time spent with heavy-drinking friends.
Are you worried someone you know is misusing alcohol?
It can be very worrying to think that someone you care about is misusing alcohol. We know how hard it is, no matter if is your parent, child, brother, sister, family member or friend.
But don’t worry, there is help available.
Drop-in sessions are available across West Sussex at a number of locations.
Living with someone who misuses drugs or alcohol can create a lot of stress, tension and a feeling of isolation. Our volunteer advisors are all trained and non-judgemental, who can provide you with free information and support in safe and friendly surroundings. They are people you can speak to in confidence.
Find out more about the drop-in sessions available in West Sussex.
There are also a number of organisations and charities which can offer help, confidential support and advice for people of all ages concerned about a family member or friend.
Find out more about these organisations and how to contact them in the right-hand column.
Alcohol and your child
If you are a parent and you are concerned your child may be drinking alcohol illegally or misusing alcohol, there is help and support available.
We understand it is not an easy conversation to have with your child, but being prepared to discuss it makes it easier.
It’s best to start early. Research shows children’s openness to their parents’ influence changes dramatically as they grow up. Between the ages of eight and 12, children generally accept what their parents say about alcohol. However, 13 to 17-year-olds increasingly pay attention to their friends.
Children will probably be curious and ask questions when they see you drinking. It’s best to address these as they come up rather than let them think that alcohol is something mysterious to be kept secret. That could make them even more curious and more likely to drink.
Top 5 tips
- Children see alcohol products and adults drinking when they’re very young. They’re likely to be curious, so it’s never too early to start talking about it.
- The effects of alcohol often crop up in soap operas, films and news stories, as well as in magazines and newspapers. This can be a good opportunity to introduce the topic.
- Alcohol should be something you and your children can talk about naturally. Nobody wants to sit down and have ‘The Alcohol Talk’. If your child’s curious about alcohol and asks you about it, answer frankly and honestly.
- Find a natural time to talk. Just as your child is stepping out the door on the way to a party isn’t the time to warn of the dangers of drinking.
- If your child does get drunk try not to overreact. Talk to them about it the next morning: listen to what they have to say and try to understand their situation.
If your child can drink alcohol legally and you are still worried, here is some helpful advice you could use to support your child.
Tips for staying safe
Even the most sensible child can be made vulnerable as a result of alcohol. If you are aware your child is drinking here are some tips you can give to help them stay safe:
- Eating before and during drinking - Eating snacks between drinks, or having a meal before they go out, will help slow the alcohol getting into their system, meaning they don’t get drunk so quickly.
- Drinking plenty of water - Alternating alcoholic drinks with water or soft drinks will slow your teenager’s drinking and help to keep them hydrated.
- Keep an eye on what they're drinking - Tell them not to mix their drinks, as this makes it harder to keep track of what they’ve had. You could also suggest they understand the guidelines for safe drinking and how this relates to their choice of drinks.
- Plan how they are going to get home - If they’re getting a taxi, tell them to get a licensed one. Make sure they let you know where they are going and who with. Tell them to never get into a car with someone who’s been drinking. It may seem obvious when sober but people are more likely to take risks when drunk.
Look out for their friends - Sticking together and not letting friends wander off on their own will help them stay safe. Remind them to go out with a fully charged mobile phone with plenty of credit, so if they do get into trouble they can call. It might also be an idea to let them know that, if they’re ever in trouble, lose their friends or can’t get home safely, they can call you at any time to pick them up - and you won’t be really angry.
Frequently asked questions
Can drinking a little be good for you?
Evidence suggests that a regular pattern of drinking small amounts of alcohol can reduce the risk of heart disease in men over the age of 40 and post-menopausal women. No more than one to two units a day is needed.
Scientists don’t yet understand how alcohol is able to produce this particular protective effect, but there are a number of possible mechanisms.
As alcohol also has harmful effects, it isn’t recommended that non-drinkers should start drinking for their health. Eating more healthily and exercising also reduce the risk of heart disease, have other benefits that you wouldn’t get from drinking alcohol and have fewer risks.
What's binge drinking?
‘Bingeing’ is drinking heavily all in one go – usually meaning enough to get drunk or to be substantially impaired.
Researchers refer to drinking more than eight units of alcohol for men and more than six for women, on any one day or any one episode as binge drinking. This is a useful marker for binge-drinking levels but doesn’t define them. Everyone varies in their tolerance for alcohol. The important thing is to avoid drinking until you feel drunk.
Binge drinking is part of the drinking culture for some people in this country, including many young people. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have a drink problem, but it’s a major factor in accidents, violence and anti-social behaviour.
Can I overdose on alcohol?
As we all know, drinking too much in one session can make you sleep very heavily, which can be risky in itself. But it can also lead to alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal due to, for example, suppression of breathing or inhaling vomit.
Can drinking make me fat?
Your alcoholic drink can contain a lot of calories, so it can add to weight gain. You can cut the calories you’re drinking by:
- Making longer drinks with low-calorie or calorie-free mixers
- Alternating alcoholic drinks with low-calorie non-alcoholic ones
- Alternating pints with half pints
- Having a small glass of wine instead of a pint of beer: this has around half the calories (alcohol-free beers are high in sugar and not low in calories).
Can drinking cause sexual problems?
Men may suffer from temporary impotence (brewer's droop) after drinking. Long-term heavy drinkers might also suffer from:
- Loss of libido and impotence
- Shrinking of the testicles
- Reduction in penis size
- Reduced sperm production
- Loss of pubic and body hair
- Enlargement of the breasts (as a complication of cirrhosis).
Can drinking cause mental health problems?
There’s a strong link between heavy drinking, depression and suicide. UK studies show that 39% of men and 8% of women who attempted suicide were chronic problem drinkers. Alcohol had been consumed before 70% of attempted suicides by men and 40% of attempted suicides by women.
For more information see the right-hand column for helpful links.
Is it dangerous to mix alcohol with other drugs?
Alcohol can be very dangerous when taken with other drugs, especially other nervous system depressants (barbiturates, minor tranquillisers such as Valium, etc) or with recreational drugs, such as Ecstasy and cocaine. It is an important factor in drug-related deaths.
If I have a drink problem, does that make me an alcoholic?
Not everyone who has a drink problem is an alcoholic. Some people may not drink all the time, but when they do, they get very drunk. You (or someone you know) could have a problem if:
- you get drunk regularly
- you can't stop once you've started
- you're drinking more than before
- you're losing interest in other things because of drink
- you're drinking alone
- you're making excuses to drink
- you're letting people down as a result of drinking
- you smell of alcohol during the day
- you feel guilty about drinking
- you get the shakes in the morning
- if you’re worried about your drinking levels, you can check them yourself with our self-assessment test.
To find out what help and support is on offer across West Sussex, visit our services page