At-risk drinking

Perspectives: Health education

According to the 2023 Gallup Consumption Habits poll, approximately 62% of adults in the United States drink alcohol. Alcohol consumption is common in our culture, and often a focus of social activities with family and friends. Unfortunately, nearly one-third of those who drink engage in at-risk drinking at some point in their lives.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism describes at-risk drinking as drinking that greatly increases your chances of developing alcohol problems.

Drinking heavily just once a month raises your long-term risk for diagnosable alcohol problems from 2% to 20%. Drinking heavily once per week increases your risk to 30%, while drinking heavily at least twice a week increases that risk to 50%.

At-risk drinking can have serious effects on your physical and mental health. Understanding the recommended guidelines for drinking and knowing if you’re at risk can help you make decisions that protect your health and well-being.

Guidelines for how to drink in moderation

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) define “moderate drinking” as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. This level of drinking is considered to have relatively low health risks.

A “standard” drink typically contains 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. This is equal to:

  • 12 ounces of beer with 5% alcohol content.
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor with 7% alcohol content.
  • 5 ounces of wine with 12% alcohol content.
  • 1.5 ounces of a distilled spirit such as gin, rum, vodka, or whiskey with 40% alcohol content.

Problems associated with at-risk drinking

While the risk of harm from alcohol increases with the amount consumed, even a small amount of alcohol can be harmful. In 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a statement emphasizing that “no level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health.”

The WHO's statement is backed by recent data showing alcohol is a major contributor to health problems that include liver disease, heart disease, and some cancers.

Excessive drinking can also have a serious impact on mental health. Alcohol’s depressive properties can slow brain function and lead to feelings of depression and anxiety.

At-risk drinking can also cause problems at work and in relationships. Impaired judgment from drinking can lead to high-risk sexual activity, violent or criminal acts, drunk driving, and self-injury.

Seven steps to address at-risk drinking

If you think that you or a loved one is drinking too much, it's important to take action. These eight steps can help:

1. Know how much you drink 

If you don’t know how much you drink, track your consumption for few weeks. Knowing how much you drink will make it easier to develop a plan to cut back or stop drinking altogether.

2. Identify triggers

Identify the triggers, such as certain social situations, places, or emotions that bring on the desire to drink.

3. Find healthy alternatives

Try replacing alcohol with satisfying, nonalcoholic beverages. Getting involved in nondrinking activities can help you develop a healthier lifestyle.

4. Stay positive and reward yourself

It’s hard to change a habit. Stay positive and focused, even if there are setbacks. When you accomplish a goal, reward yourself with a meaningful item or activity.

5. Build a support system

Turn to family, friends, or local or online support groups. Support and encouragement can help you stay on track.

6. Seek professional help

If you struggle with drinking, talk to your doctor. They can assess your physical and emotional health and advise you on next steps.

7. Create a plan

Use these steps to develop a plan to change your lifestyle. A plan will help to identify your goals and the steps needed to achieve them.

At-risk drinking is a significant health concern, with serious potential consequences. Be aware of the recommended guidelines for drinking and strive to drink in moderation or not at all, especially if you have health concerns. Remember, seeking professional help is always an option.