Published Tue, 2012-02-14 11:03; updated 37 weeks ago.

© George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Most people who have alcohol-related health problems aren’t alcoholics.

They're simply people who have regularly drunk more than the recommended levels for some years.

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.

Regularly drinking above recommended daily limits risks damaging your health.

There's no guaranteed safe level of drinking, but if you drink below recommended daily limits, the risks of harming your health are low. And it's certainly not only people who get drunk or binge drink who are at risk.

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. Liver problems, reduced fertility, high blood pressure, increased risk of various cancers and heart attack are some of the numerous harmful effects of regularly drinking above recommended levels.

The effects of alcohol on your health will depend on how much you drink.

The more you drink, the greater the health risks.

In terms of risks, drinkers can be divided into three categories:

  • Lower-risk drinkers
  • Increasing-risk drinkers
  • Higher-risk drinkers

What's a unit? Pint of 4% lager: 2.3 units 175ml glass of 13% wine: 2.3 units 25ml glass of 40% single spirit and mixer: 1 unit Units are a standard way to indicate the alcohol content of any given drink.

Percentages given in brackets refer to Alcohol by Volume (ABV) of stated drink.

Lower risk drinkers

Lower-risk drinking means that you have a low risk of causing yourself future harm.

However, drinking consistently within these limits is called 'lower-risk', rather than 'safe', because drinking alcohol is never completely safe.

NHS recommendations for lower risk drinking state that: men should not exceed 3-4 units a day on a regular basis women should not exceed 2-3 units a day on a regular basis Even drinking below these levels will not be advisable in some circumstances.

Any drinking can still be too much if you’re driving, operating machinery, about to go swimming or engaging in strenuous physical activity.

Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should not drink alcohol. When you drink, alcohol reaches your baby through the placenta.

Too much exposure to alcohol can seriously affect your baby's development.

If you choose to drink, do not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week, and do not get drunk.

This will minimise risk to the baby.

People who drink should aim to be in the lower-risk category to minimise the health risks.

Increasing risk drinkers

Drinking at this level increases the risk of damaging your health.

Alcohol affects all parts and systems of the body, and it can play a role in numerous medical conditions.

Increasing-risk drinking is: drinking more than 3-4 units a day on a regular basis if you're a man drinking more than 2-3 units a day on a regular basis if you're a woman.

If you're drinking at around these levels, your risk of developing a serious illness is higher compared to non-drinkers: Men are 1.8 to 2.5 times as likely to get cancer of the mouth, neck and throat; women are 1.2 to 1.7 times as likely.

Women are 1.2 times as likely to get breast cancer. Men are twice as likely to develop liver cirrhosis, and women 1.7 times as likely.

Men are 1.8 times as likely to develop high blood pressure, and women are 1.3 times as likely.

If you're an increasing-risk drinker and are drinking substantially above the lower risk limits, your risks will be even higher than those outlined above.

At these drinking levels, you might already be suffering from alcohol-related problems, such as fatigue or depression, weight gain, poor sleep and sexual problems. Whatever your age or sex, you’re probably in worse physical shape than you would be otherwise.

Also, you could easily be suffering from higher blood pressure due to your drinking.

Some people argue a lot when they’re drinking, which can negatively affect their relationships with family and friends.

Higher risk drinkers

If you’re in this group, you’re at an even higher risk of damaging your health compared to increasing risk drinkers.

Higher risk drinking is:  Regularly drinking more than 8 units a day, or more than 50 units a week if you're a man; regularly drinking more than 6 units a day, or more than 35 units a week if you're a woman.

Again, alcohol affects the whole body, and it can play a role in numerous medical conditions.

You’re at a much higher risk of developing alcohol-related health problems.

Your body has probably suffered some damage already, even if you’re not yet aware of it.

Compared to non-drinkers, if you regularly drink above higher-risk levels: you could be 3-5 times more likely to get cancer of the mouth, neck and throat you could be 3-10 times more likely to develop liver cirrhosis, men could have four times the risk of having high blood pressure, and women are at least twice as likely to develop it you could be twice as likely to suffer from an irregular heartbeat women are around 50% more likely to get breast cancer.

The more you drink above the higher-risk threshold, the greater the risks, so some of the health risks can be even higher than those shown above.

You’re likely to have the same problems as increasing-risk drinkers: feeling tired or depressed, or gaining extra weight.

You may be sleeping poorly or having sexual problems.

And, like increasing-risk drinkers but possibly more so, you’re almost definitely in worse physical shape than you would be otherwise, whatever your age or gender.

You could also suffer from high blood pressure.

Information supplied August 2012.

NHS Choices

Alcohol

We all know we shouldn’t drink too much, but how much is too much?