February 16, 2017

Guidelines for low-risk drinking

aerial view beach

Australians use alcohol to celebrate, commiserate, relax and have fun. However, alcohol is a significant cause of injury and ill health, violence, crime, family breakdown, road accidents, loss of productivity in workplaces and death in Australia.

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.

No safe level of drinking

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


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 developed draft guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol.

Remember, there is no safe level of drinking.

Guideline 1: Healthy men and women

‘To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day.’1

‘The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm. For some people not drinking at all is the safest option.’1

The more alcohol you drink, the greater your risk of injury or disease over the course of your life. If you drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks per day, your lifetime risk of dying from an alcohol-related disease or injury is less than 1 in 100.1

Guideline 2: Children and young people

‘To reduce the risk of injury and other harms to health, children and young people under 18 years of age should not drink alcohol.’1

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

  • This is because young people often drink more and take more risks increasing the likelihood of immediate harm such as injury and alcohol poisoning.
  • 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 are introduced to alcohol too early. Young people should therefore delay their first drink for as long as possible.

Guideline 3: Pregnancy and breastfeeding

‘To reduce the risk of harm to their unborn child, women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy should not drink alcohol. For women who are breastfeeding, not drinking is safest for their baby.’1

  • Consuming alcohol while pregnant or breastfeeding can have harmful effects on the development of the fetus or infant.
  • Drinking while pregnant can increase the risk of experiencing complications such as 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, breastfeeding, 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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