The Basics: Defining How Much Alcohol is Too Much (2023)


  • Show your patients a standard drink chart when asking about their alcohol consumption to encourage more accurate estimates. Drinks often contain more alcohol than people think, and patients often underestimate their consumption.
  • Advise some patients not to drink at all, including those who are managing health conditions that can be worsened by alcohol, are taking medications that could interact with alcohol, are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, or are under age 21.
  • Otherwise, advise patients who choose to drink to follow the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, by limiting intake to 1 drink or less for women and 2 drinks or less for men—on any single day, not on average. Drinking at this level may reduce, though not eliminate, risks.
  • Don’t advise non-drinking patients to start drinking alcohol for their health. Past research overestimated benefits of moderate drinking, while current research points to added risks, such as for breast cancer, even with low levels of drinking.

How much, how fast, and how often a person drinks alcohol all factor into the risk for alcohol-related problems. How much and how fast a person drinks influences how much alcohol enters the bloodstream, how impaired he or she becomes, and what the related acute risks will be. Over time, how much and how often a person drinks influences not only acute risks but also chronic health problems, including liver disease and alcohol use disorder (AUD), and social harms such as relationship problems.1 (See Core articles on medical complications and AUD.)

It can be hard for patients to gauge and accurately report their alcohol intake to clinicians, in part because labels on alcohol containers typically list only the percent of alcohol by volume (ABV) and not serving sizes or the number of servings per container. Whether served in a bar or restaurant or poured at home, drinks often contain more alcohol than people think. It’s easy and common for patients to underestimate their consumption.2,3

While there is no guaranteed safe amount of alcohol for anyone, general guidelines can help clinicians advise their patients and minimize the risks. Here, we will provide basic information about drink sizes, drinking patterns, and alcohol metabolism to help answer the question “how much is too much?” In short, the answer from current research is, the less alcohol, the better.

A note on drinking level terms used in this Core article: The 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines states that for adults who choose to drink alcohol, women should have 1 drink or less in a day and men should have 2 drinks or less in a day. These amounts are not intended as an average but rather a daily limit. Binge drinking brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 percent or more, which typically happens if a woman has 4 or more drinks, or a man has 5 or more drinks, within about 2 hours. Heavy drinking includes binge drinking and has been defined for women as 4 or more drinks on any day or 8 or more per week, and for men as 5 or more drinks on any day or 15 or more per week.

What counts as a drink?

In the United States, a "standard drink" or "alcoholic drink equivalent" is any drink containing 14 grams, or about 0.6 fluid ounces, of “pure” ethanol. As shown in the illustration, this amount is found in 12 ounces of regular beer (with 5% alcohol by volume or alc/vol), 5 ounces of table wine (with 12% alc/vol), or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits (with 40% alc/vol).

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The sample standard drinks above are just starting points for comparison, because actual alcohol content and customary serving sizes can vary greatly both across and within types of beverages. For example:

  • Beer: The most popular type of beer is light beer, which may be light in calories, but not necessarily in alcohol. The mean alc/vol for light beers is 4.3%, almost as much as a regular beer with 5% alc/vol.4 On average, craft beers have more than 5% alc/vol and flavored malt beverages, such as hard seltzers, more than 6% alc/vol.4 Some craft beers and flavored malt beverages have in the range of 8-9% alc/vol. Advise patients to check container labels for the alcohol content and adjust their intake accordingly.
  • Wine:The largest category of wine is table wine. On average, table wines contain about 12% alc/vol4 and can range from about 5% to 16%. Larger wine glasses can encourage larger pours. People are often unaware that a 25-ounce (750ml) bottle of table wine with 12% alc/vol contains five standard drinks, and one with 14% alc/vol holds nearly six.
  • Cocktails: Recipes for cocktails often exceed one standard drink’s worth of alcohol. The cocktail content calculator on Rethinking Drinking shows the alcohol content in sample cocktails.

Showing your patients a standard drink chart (printable here[PDF – 184KB]) will help inform them about drink equivalents and may help your patients to estimate their consumption more accurately.

How many drinks are in common containers?

Below is the approximate number of standard drinks in different sized containers of beer, malt liquor, table wine, and distilled spirits:

regular beer
(5% alc/vol)
malt liquor
(7% alc/vol)
table wine
(12% alc/vol)
80-proof distilled spirits
(40% alc/vol)
12 fl oz = 1
16 fl oz = 1⅓
22 fl oz = 2
40 floz = 3⅓
12 fl oz =
16 fl oz = 2
22 fl oz =
40 fl oz =
750 ml (a regular wine bottle) = 5

a shot (1.5 oz glass/50 ml bottle) = 1
a mixed drink or cocktail = 1 or more
200 ml (a "half pint") =
375 ml (a "pint" or "half bottle") =
750 ml (a "fifth") = 17
1.5 L (a "magnum") = 34
1.75 L (a "handle") = 39½

See the drink size calculator on NIAAA’s Rethinking Drinking website for more examples.

When is having any alcohol too much?

It is safest for patients to avoid alcohol altogether if they:

  • Take medications that interact with alcohol (see Core article on medication interactions).
  • Have a medical condition caused or exacerbated by drinking, such as liver disease, bipolar disorder, abnormal heart rhythm, diabetes, hypertension, or chronic pain, among others (see Core article on medical complications).
  • Are under the legal drinking age of 21.
  • Plan to drive a vehicle or operate machinery.
  • Are pregnant or trying to become pregnant.
  • Experience facial flushing and dizziness when drinking alcohol. Between 30% and 45% of people of East Asian heritage inherit an enzyme deficiency that causes these symptoms and amplifies the risk of alcohol-related cancers, particularly head and neck cancer and esophageal cancer, even if they drink at light or moderate levels.5

What are the U.S. Dietary Guidelines on alcohol consumption?

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines 6 recommends that for healthy adults who choose to drink and do not have the exclusions noted above, alcohol-related risks may be minimized, though not eliminated, by limiting intakes to:

(Video) How Much Alcohol Would You Have to Drink Before Liver Damage

  • For women—1 drink or less in a day
  • For men—2 drinks or less in a day

The 2020-2025 U.S. Dietary Guidelines makes it clear that these light to moderate amounts are not intended as an average, but rather the amount consumed on any single day.

The latest and most rigorous research casts some doubt on past studies that linked light to moderate drinking with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and indicates that protective effects were overestimated.7 Earlier study methods made it difficult to conclude whether positive cardiovascular outcomes were due to low alcohol consumption or instead, for example, to diet, genetics, health history, or behavioral differences between people who do and do not drink. Recent studies also suggest that that even drinking in moderation increases the risk for stroke,8 cancer,9 and premature death.10,11

In short, current research indicates that: (1) for those who drink, the less, the better;12 (2) those with a strong family history of cancer or AUD may wish to minimize risk by abstaining;10 and (3) those who don’t drink alcohol shouldn’t start—as noted in the U.S. Dietary Guidelines—"for any reason." 6

What is heavy drinking?

The patterns below are considered “heavy” drinking,13,14 which markedly increases the likelihood of AUD and other alcohol-related harms:1

  • For women—4 or more drinks on any day or 8 or more per week
  • For men—5 or more drinks on any day or 15 or more per week

Heavy drinking thresholds for women are lower because after consumption, alcohol distributes itself evenly in body water, and pound for pound, women have proportionally less water in their bodies than men do. This means that after a woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will tend to be higher, putting her at greater risk for harm.

For men and women, the risk for alcohol-related harm depends on a combination of how much, how fast, and how often they drink:

  • Too much, too fast. When a woman has 4 or more drinks—or a man has 5 or more—in about 2 hours, this typically raises the BAC to 0.08% and meets the definition of binge drinking.13 Binge drinking causes more than half of the alcohol-related deaths in the U.S.15 It increases the risk of falls, burns, car crashes, memory blackouts, medication interactions, assaults, drownings, and overdose deaths15 (see Core article on medication interactions).
  • Too much, too often. Frequent heavy drinking raises the risk for both acute harms, such as falls and medication interactions, and for chronic consequences, such as AUD1 and dose-dependent increases in liver disease,1 heart disease,16 and cancers17 (see Core article on medical complications).

The odds are good that many of your patients drink heavily. Binge drinking occurs in the majority of adolescents who drink,15 in half of adults who drink,15 and in 1 in 10 adults over age 65,18 and is increasing among women.19,20 Given the prevalence and risks, it is important to screen all patients for heavy drinking and intervene as needed. (See Core article on screening and assessment.)

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Many patients may think that heavy drinking is not a concern because they can “hold their liquor.” However, having an innate “low level of response” or “high tolerance” to alcohol is a reason for caution, as people with this trait tend to drink more and thus have an increased risk for alcohol-related problems including AUD.21 Patients who drink within the Dietary Guidelines, too, may be unaware that even if they don’t feel a “buzz,” driving can be impaired.22

What is the clinical utility of the “heavy drinking day” metric?

Knowing what counts as a heavy drinking day—4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more for men—can be clinically useful in two ways. First, brief screening tools recommended by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force—such as the AUDIT-C and the NIAAA single alcohol screening question—ask about heavy drinking days.23 (See Core article on screening and assessment.) These tools allow you to identify the patients who need your advice and assistance to cut down or quit.

Second, when offering advice to patients who drink heavily, you may help motivate them to cut back or quit by sharing that having no heavy drinking days can bring marked improvements in how they feel and function.24 In studies, the gains were strong enough to prompt the FDA to accept no heavy drinking days as a positive outcome in alcohol treatment trials, in addition to the outcome of abstinence, the safest route.25 (See the Core article on brief intervention.)

It also helps to be aware of the typical weekly volume, because the more frequent the heavy drinking days, and the greater the weekly volume, the greater the risk for having AUD.26 (See Core article on screening and assessment.)

In closing, to gauge how much alcohol is too much for patients, you will need to look at their individual circumstances and assess the risks and health effects. At one end of the spectrum, any alcohol is too much for some patients, as noted above. At the other end, patterns such as heavy andbinge drinking are clearly high risk and should be avoided. In the zone in between, for people who choose to drink, current research indicates the less, the better.8,9

Other Core articles will help you to screen for heavy drinking, identify possible medical complications of alcohol use, assess for signs of AUD, and conduct a brief intervention to guide patients in setting a plan to cut back or quit if needed.

The Basics of How the Body Processes Alcohol

Absorption and distribution. When alcohol is consumed, it passes from the stomach and intestines into the bloodstream, where it distributes itself evenly throughout all the water in the body’s tissues and fluids. Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach increases the rate of absorption, resulting in higher blood alcohol level, compared to drinking on a full stomach. In either case, however, alcohol is still absorbed into the bloodstream at a much faster rate than it is metabolized. Thus, the blood alcohol concentration builds when a person has additional drinks before prior drinks are metabolized.

Metabolism. The body begins to metabolize alcohol within seconds after ingestion and proceeds at a steady rate, regardless of how much alcohol a person drinks or of attempts to sober up with caffeine or by other means. Most of the alcohol is broken down in the liver by the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). ADH transforms ethanol, the type of alcohol in alcohol beverages, into acetaldehyde, a toxic, carcinogenic compound. Generally, acetaldehyde is quickly broken down to a less toxic compound, acetate, by aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH). Acetate then is broken down, mainly in tissues other than the liver, into carbon dioxide and water, which are easily eliminated. To a lesser degree, other enzymes (CYP2E1 and catalase) also break down alcohol to acetaldehyde.

The Basics: Defining How Much Alcohol is Too Much (2)

Although the rate of metabolism is steady in any given person, it varies widely among individuals depending on factors including liver size and body mass, as well as genetics. Some people of East Asian descent, for example, carry variations of the genes for ADH or ALDH that cause acetaldehyde to build up when alcohol is consumed, which in turn produces a flushing reaction and increases cancer risk.27–29

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC). BAC is largely determined by how much and how quickly a person drinks alcohol as well as by the body’s rates of alcohol absorption, distribution, and metabolism. Binge drinking is defined as reaching a BAC of 0.08% (0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter of blood) or higher. A typical adult reaches this BAC after consuming 4 or more drinks (women) or 5 or more drinks (men), in about 2 hours.

For more details about alcohol metabolism, see this video and this summary.

(Video) How Much Is Too Much When It Comes To Drinking Alcohol?


How much alcohol is too much? ›

For men, binge drinking is 5 or more drinks consumed on one occasion. Underage drinking: Any alcohol use by those under age 21. Heavy drinking: For women, heavy drinking is 8 drinks or more per week. For men, heavy drinking is 15 drinks or more per week.

How much alcohol is too much in ML? ›

Well, in fact, the liver has an immense capacity to regenerate. Hence, the 'safe limit' for alcohol consumption is said to be 21 units per week (1 unit is approximately 25 ml of whiskey) in men, and 14 units in women. No more than three units in one day, and to have at least two alcohol-free days a week.

Is there a safe amount of alcohol? ›

The risks and harms associated with drinking alcohol have been systematically evaluated over the years and are well documented. The World Health Organization has now published a statement in The Lancet Public Health: when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health.

How much alcohol is too much in one sitting? ›

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines binge drinking as four or more drinks for women or five or more drinks for men on the same occasion, meaning at the same time or within a couple of hours ( 1 ).

How much alcohol is enough per day? ›

According to a survey, it is found that people don't realize their drinking habits could contribute to their cancer risk. However, the new PLOS Medicine Study reports that sipping on one or two drinks per day isn't that bad and keeping it to a maximum of three drinks a week is the healthiest.

How many drinks per hour is too much? ›

Your body can process one standard drink per hour.

Follow the one-in-one rule— try to drink one drink per hour. Keep track of the number of drinks you've had and the amount of time between drinks.

What is the healthiest alcohol? ›

Red Wine. Red wine is widely recognized as one of the healthiest alcoholic drinks out there. Poon notes that it's "relatively low in calories and also offers some health benefits."9 She adds that red wine is rich in antioxidants such as resveratrol and proanthocyanidins and can promote cardiovascular health.

What is the highest percentage of alcohol safe to drink? ›

1. Spirytus Rektyfikowany (96% Alcohol) The purity of rectified spirit has a practical limit of 95.6% ABV; this hard to pronounce Polish Vodka is a murderous 96% ABV. In short, abusing this drink can literally make you meet God!

How many standard drinks per day is OK? ›

To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury, healthy men and women should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.

How much is over the limit? ›

80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood (the 'blood limit') 35 micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath (the 'breath limit')

How many drinks per hour is normal? ›

The liver metabolizes alcohol at a very constant rate, approximately one drink per hour. If there is excessive alcohol in the blood, the liver cannot speed up the detoxification process.

How many drinks is .08 for a man? ›

Standard Drinks and BAC

For every one drink, your BAC goes up by about 0.02 percent, so reaching a BAC of 0.08 percent takes about four to five drinks.

What is the least toxic alcohol to drink? ›

Take a look at this list of the least-damaging alcoholic drinks from Legends at White Oak to help you drink consciously.
  • Red Wine. ...
  • Light Beer. ...
  • Tequila. ...
  • Gin & Rum & Vodka & Whiskey.
Mar 7, 2021

What can I drink instead of alcohol? ›

What to drink instead of alcohol
  • Soda and fresh lime. Proof that simple is still the best.
  • Berries in iced water. This summery drink will keep you refreshed and revitalised.
  • Kombucha. ...
  • Virgin bloody Mary. ...
  • Virgin Mojito. ...
  • Half soda/half cranberry juice and muddled lime. ...
  • Soda and fresh fruit. ...
  • Mocktails.

Can a doctor tell if you drink alcohol? ›

The short answer is yes: blood testing can show heavy alcohol use. However, timing plays a significant role in the accuracy of blood alcohol testing. In a typical situation, blood alcohol tests are only accurate six to 12 hours after someone consumes their last beverage.

What percentage of alcohol is unsafe? ›

Generally, once your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.40 percent or over, it's dangerous territory. At this level, there's a risk of coma or death. If your BAC is between 0.08 and 0.40 percent, you're likely to be very impaired and have symptoms like: confusion.

Which alcohol makes you high? ›

Ethanol — also referred to as alcohol, ethyl alcohol, or grain alcohol — is the primary ingredient in alcoholic bevvies. It's also the one that causes drunkenness.

Can you drink 100% alcohol? ›

Odds are high that the individual won't only get drunk on this dangerously toxic beverage, they'll black out and possibly even die. According to, "The approximate lethal dose of 90 to 100 percent isopropanol for human adults is only 250 milliliters, or about 8 ounces." Eight ounces.

How much alcohol per day is alcoholism? ›

Heavy or high-risk drinking is defined as more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks a week for women and for men older than age 65, and more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks a week for men age 65 and younger.

What are the symptoms of drinking too much alcohol? ›

Symptoms of alcohol overdose include mental confusion, difficulty remaining conscious, vomiting, seizure, trouble breathing, slow heart rate, clammy skin, dulled responses such as no gag reflex (which prevents choking), and extremely low body temperature. Alcohol overdose can lead to permanent brain damage or death.

How much alcohol causes liver damage? ›

Long-term intake of more than 30 g of absolute alcohol per day increases the risk of alcoholic liver disease; liver disease is nearly certain in long-term consumption in excess of 80 g of absolute alcohol per day.

How much alcohol a week is healthy? ›

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking is considered to be in the moderate or low-risk range for women at no more than three drinks in any one day and no more than seven drinks per week. For men, it is no more than four drinks a day and no more than 14 drinks per week.

Is drinking every day considered an alcoholic? ›

"While there are a number of variables, typically having a drink every night does not necessarily equate to alcohol use disorder, but it can increase the risk of developing alcohol-related health problems," Lawrence Weinstein, MD, Chief Medical Officer at American Addiction Centers tells WebMD Connect to Care.

What is the difference between a heavy drinker and an alcoholic? ›

However, there are subtle differences between heavy drinking and alcoholism. Problem drinking is associated with someone who drinks too much, too often, or during inappropriate situations. Alcoholism, on the other hand, is a complex disease characterized by compulsive drinking regardless of negative consequences.

What are the 4 types of drinker? ›

There are four types of drinker – which one are you?
  • Social drinking. To date, nearly all the research on drinking motives has been done on teens and young adults. ...
  • Drinking to conform. ...
  • Drinking for enhancement. ...
  • Drinking to cope.

What are the 3 types of alcoholic? ›

Alcohols bind with other atoms to create secondary alcohols. These secondary alcohols are the three types of alcohol that humans use every day: methanol, isopropanol, and ethanol.

How to clean your liver? ›

To ensure your diet is benefiting your liver in the long term, try the following:
  1. Eat a variety of foods. Choose whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, dairy, and healthy fats. ...
  2. Get enough fiber. ...
  3. Stay hydrated. ...
  4. Limit fatty, sugary, and salty foods. ...
  5. Drink coffee.
Aug 25, 2020

How long does your liver take to recover from alcohol? ›

If you stop drinking alcohol for 2 weeks, your liver should return to normal.

How many years of drinking does it take to damage your liver? ›

Alcohol Related Cirrhosis: The most serious form of ALD, it occurs when the entire liver is scarred, causing the liver to shrink and harden. This can lead to liver failure. Usually the damage cannot be reversed. Between 10 to 20 percent of heavy drinkers develop cirrhosis typically after 10 or more years of drinking.

What happens if you drink alcohol everyday? ›

Long-Term Health Risks. Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other serious problems including: High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems. Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.

Is a bottle of wine a day too much? ›

Drinking a bottle of wine per day is not considered healthy by most standards. However, when does it morph from a regular, innocent occurrence into alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcoholism? First, it's important to note that building tolerance in order to drink an entire bottle of wine is a definitive red flag.

How do I get rid of the habit of drinking every night? ›

These tips will help you cut back on drinking alcohol.
  1. Put it in writing. ...
  2. Set a drinking goal. ...
  3. Keep a diary of your drinking. ...
  4. Don't keep alcohol in your house. ...
  5. Drink slowly. ...
  6. Choose alcohol-free days. ...
  7. Watch for peer pressure. ...
  8. Keep busy.


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