Dr Caitlin: When Drinking Alcohol Becomes Dangerous

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Dr Caitlin O’Connor of Tralee Medical Centre, St Brendan’s Park, on the abuse of alcohol and its effects…

Sensible drinking

Nearly one in four adults risks their health by drinking more than the recommended daily amount of alcohol.

One unit is equal to 8g, or about 10ml, of pure alcohol. The number of units of alcohol in any particular drink depends on its strength and volume.

The alcohol content of some common drinks is as follows.

One pint of strong lager (5% ABV) contains around three units.

One pint of standard strength lager or bitter (3 to 3.5% ABV) contains around two units.

One 275ml bottle of an alcopop (5.5% ABV) contains around one and a half units.

One standard (175ml) glass of wine (12% ABV) contains around two units.

One measure (25ml) of a spirit strength (around 40% ABV) drink contains one unit.

Recommended weekly alcohol intake men drink no more than three or four units a day women drink no more than two or three units a day.

If you drink more than the recommended amount in one session, don’t drink alcohol for 48 hours afterwards.

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Problem drinking

Drinking which could cause harm to either the drinker or others is known as hazardous drinking (for example binge drinking).

Binge drinking is defined as drinking with the intention of getting drunk and/or drinking over twice the recommended daily amount of alcohol in one session.

If you drink in this way very occasionally, you’re probably not dependent on alcohol and are unlikely to have any long-term health effects, but it may cause you or others harm (for example hangovers, or antisocial or violent behaviour).

Frequent or regular binge drinking is an example of harmful drinking. If you drink in this way you may be dependent on alcohol and can develop long-term health problems.

Alcohol dependence

If you prioritise alcohol above anything else in your life, you’re likely to be dependent on alcohol. You may feel the need to drink frequently throughout the day, drink large amounts at a time, or experience withdrawal effects between drinks. Alcohol dependence often leads to serious long-term health problems.

Symptoms of problem drinking

Short-term effects

• A small amount of alcohol may relax you and make you feel less anxious. In increasing amounts, alcohol will suppress the part of your brain that controls judgement, resulting in inappropriate behaviour and a loss of inhibitions.

• Alcohol is a contributing factor to many assaults, incidents of domestic violence and fatal road accidents.

• Alcohol negatively affects your physical coordination, vision, speech and balance.

• Drinking a very large amount at one time can lead to unconsciousness and coma.

Long-term physical effects

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to a range of long-term health problems including:

• liver/brain/heart damage

• gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining)

• pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)

• high blood pressure

• cancers

• seizures

• impotence/infertility

Psychological effects

Long-term heavy drinking can increase anxiety and cause depression, memory loss and dementia. It can also lead to sleeping problems, mood-swings, violence and suicide.

Diagnosis of problem drinking

If your GP thinks that alcohol may be affecting you, he/she may ask you about how much, when, where and how often you drink. He/she may also ask you four specific questions.

• Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?

• Have people annoyed you by criticising your drinking?

• Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?

• Have you ever had a drink in the morning to get rid of a hangover (known as an “eye opener”)?

Your GP may also ask if you have:

• physical withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, shaking, agitation and feeling sick when you try to cut down

• a need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to get the same effect

• ‘blackouts’ (ie if you’re unable to remember periods of time when you have been drinking)

• continued drinking despite knowing that it may be harming you

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