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February 16, 2017

Guidelines for low-risk drinking

Australians use alcohol to celebrate, commiserate, relax and have fun. However, many are unaware of the harmful impacts that excessive drinking can cause: from family violence to road trauma and other injuries.

So while many of us are aware of the amounts of alcohol we can consume and still remain under the legal blood alcohol limit (BAC) when driving, many of us are not so clear on the amount of alcohol we can consume before our drinking starts seriously impacting our health.

While there is no safe level of drinking, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has developed some guidelines to help us understand the impact of drinking on our health, wellbeing and safety.

Some definitions

Harm: the undesirable impacts of drinking alcohol.

Immediate and short-term harms related to drinking alcohol may include hangovers, headaches, nausea, shakiness, vomiting, memory loss, falls and injury, assaults, car accidents, unplanned pregnancy and accidental death.

  • Long-term harms associated with regular drinking include cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, brain damage, memory loss and sexual dysfunction.
  • Other potential harms can include damage to relationships, problems at work or school, and legal and financial difficulties.
  • Standard drink: a drink that contains approximately 10g of alcohol (12.5ml of pure alcohol).
standard drink infographic

Guidelines for drinking alcohol

The NHMRC has guidelines on the drinking of alcohol, but these are only a general guide. Everyone’s situation is different.

Remember, there is no safe level of drinking.

Guideline 1: Reducing the risk of alcohol-related harm over a lifetime

You should drink no more than 2 standard drinks on any given day.

The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of injury or disease over the course of your life. If you drink less than 2 standard drinks per day, your risk of dying from an alcohol-related injury is less than 1 in 100. The more you drink, the greater your risk.

Guideline 2: Reducing the risk of injury while drinking

You should drink no more than 4 standard drinks on any one occasion.

The more alcohol you drink in a single session, the greater the risk of you being injured. Drinking 4 standard drinks more than doubles your risk of injury in the following 6 hours. For every drink you have after that, you put yourself in more danger.

  • Generally, women will become more intoxicated on less alcohol than men. However, men often behave more dangerously when drinking.
  • Every drinking session you have adds up over your life (see guideline 1).

Guideline 3: Young people under 18 years of age

For young people under 18 years of age, abstaining from alcohol is the safest option.

  • This is because young people are more likely to behave dangerously while drinking, they often drink more and take more risks.
  • Young people’s brains are still developing during their teenage years. Drinking alcohol may impact its development and lead to health issues later in life. The earlier a young person is introduced to alcohol, the more likely they are to develop these complications.
  • Young people are also more likely to develop alcohol dependence later in life if they’re introduced to alcohol too early. Young people should therefore delay their first drink for as long as possible.

Guideline 4: Pregnancy and breastfeeding

If you are pregnant, are planning a pregnancy, or are breastfeeding, avoiding alcohol is the safest option.

  • Drinking while pregnant can cause bleeding, miscarriage, premature birth or stillbirth.
  • Alcohol can travel through the placenta to the unborn baby. As a result, drinking while pregnant can cause a range of physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities for the baby. Read more about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
  • Drinking alcohol can also pass into breast milk and reduce its availability. This can impact a baby’s feeding and sleeping patterns and its development. Read more about pregnancy, breast feeding and alcohol

Other factors to consider

Not drinking is the safest option if you are:

  • Involved in, or supervising, risky activities including driving, operating machinery or water sports
  • Supervising young people

You should get advice from your doctor about drinking if:

  • You are taking any medicines, including prescription or over-the-counter medicines
  • You have an alcohol-related or other physical condition, that can be affected by alcohol
  • You have mental health issues

You may have an increased risk of harm if you:

  • Are under 18 years of age
  • Are over 60 years of age
  • Have a family history of alcohol dependence
  • Use illegal drugs

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