When to avoid alcohol use

In certain situations, the risks of alcohol use may outweigh the possible health benefits. For example, use alcohol only with great care and after consulting your doctor if:

  • You're pregnant or trying to become pregnant
  • You've been diagnosed with alcoholism or alcohol abuse, or you have a strong family history of alcoholism
  • You have liver or pancreatic disease
  • You have heart failure or you've been told you have a weak heart
  • You take prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol
  • You've had a hemorrhagic stroke (when a blood vessel in your brain leaks or ruptures)

Keep in mind that even moderate use isn't risk-free. For example, drinking and driving is never a good idea.

The risks of heavy alcohol use

Heavy drinking is defined as more than three drinks on any day or more than seven drinks a week for women and for men older than age 65, and more than four drinks on any day or more than 14 drinks a week for men age 65 and younger. Binge drinking is defined as four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more drinks within two hours for men.

While moderate alcohol use may offer some health benefits, heavy drinking — including binge drinking — has no health benefits. Excessive drinking can increase your risk of serious health problems, including:

  • Certain cancers, including breast cancer and cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus
  • Pancreatitis
  • Sudden death if you already have cardiovascular disease
  • Heart muscle damage (alcoholic cardiomyopathy) leading to heart failure
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Liver disease
  • Suicide
  • Accidental serious injury or death
  • Brain damage and other problems in an unborn child
  • Alcohol withdrawal syndrome

Drink alcohol only in moderation — or not at all

The latest dietary guidelines make it clear that no one should begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits. So don't feel pressured to drink alcohol. But if you do drink alcohol and you're healthy, there's probably no need to stop as long as you drink responsibly and in moderation.

Feb. 11, 2014 See more In-depth