What's Risky Drinking?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on May 28, 2023
3 min read

A beer or glass of wine after a hard day’s work. A glass of champagne to toast a special occasion. Many people drink alcohol when celebrating, socializing, or trying to relax. But when is a drink just a harmless drink? When is it best not to drink at all? And what are “risky” drinking and binge drinking?

It’s important to remember that alcohol is a drug. Some studies show that moderate drinking may be linked to certain benefits (like red wine and heart health). But other research shows no benefit and links moderate drinking to diseases like breast cancer and an increased risk of stroke.

You should avoid alcohol completely if you’re:

  • Planning to drive a vehicle or operate any kind of machinery
  • Taking any medicines that interact with alcohol
  • Living with a medical condition that could be made worse by alcohol
  • Pregnant or are trying to have a baby

You can’t tell how much alcohol is in your drink by the amount of liquid in your glass or bottle.

In the United States, one “standard” drink has about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This is generally the amount in:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer -- that’s a regular can (usually 5% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (usually 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (usually about 40% alcohol)

Different types or brands of beer, wine, and spirits can contain varying amounts of alcohol. For example, some kinds of beer, like microbrews, have more than 5% alcohol. That means if you drink a beer that’s 10% alcohol, you’re consuming two “standard” drinks, not one (since it’s twice the amount of alcohol).

There are weekly “upper limits” for healthy adults:

  • Men: Four drinks in one day or 14 per week
  • Women: Three drinks in one day or seven per week

If you drink more than these amounts, doctors consider that “heavy” or “at-risk” drinking. That means it puts you at a higher risk for developing health problems. About 1 in 4 people who drink more than this have an alcohol use disorder.

It means you have a pattern of drinking large amounts of alcohol in short periods of time. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, it involves drinking enough alcohol to raise your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. The rough estimates this are:

  • Men: Five or more “standard” drinks in 2 hours
  • Women: Four or more “standard” drinks in 2 hours

This is why you have to be careful on special occasions. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) considers drinking five or more “standard” drinks on the same occasion on at least 1 day in the past 30 days as binge drinking.

It means you drink too much, too often. In general, for men, this means having more than four drinks on any given day. For women, it means having three drinks within that same time frame.

How much you drink and how often matters more than what type of alcohol you drink. Even if two people regularly have the same total amount of drinks in one week, their health consequences could be different. For example, having seven drinks in one night and not drinking the rest of the week is not the same as having one drink every night for a week. Even though the totals are the same, regularly drinking heavily and often is considered “risky.” Learn more: Does drinking everyday make you an alcoholic?

Over time, it can damage your body. It can affect your liver, causing inflammation (alcoholic hepatitis). It could lead to scarring of your liver (cirrhosis), which can be life-threatening.

Risky drinking can also increase your risk of stroke, damage your heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), and increase your blood pressure. It also has been linked to several different kinds of cancer.