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Avoiding Risky Drinking

Are your drinking habits putting your health and safety at risk? Learn how to recognize when your drinking has become a problem.

In many cultures, drinking alcohol is a regular part of socializing and celebrating. However, alcohol can be a powerful drug, and consuming too much of it can put your safety and health—even your life—at risk. Long-term overindulgence can cause serious damage to your health.

Taking a healthy approach

If you don't already drink, the recommendation from Dietary Guidelines for Americans1 is not to start. The reason for this is that even though there have been studies that show benefits to moderate drinking other studies have shown links between moderate alcohol consumption and increased risk of violence, drowning, breast cancer, and injuries from falls and motor vehicle collisions

However, if you do drink, the recommendation for moderate drinking is:

Women Men
Amount 1 "drink" or less 2 "drinks" or less
Time Period Per day Per day

Defining a standard drink

A standard "drink" is usually equal to a bottle of beer, a glass of wine, a shot of distilled liquor, or a cocktail or mixed drink. This definition is based on the percentage of alcohol usually found in these different drink categories.

The chart to the right gives an estimate of the alcoholic content in standard drinks by category. As the chart shows, the percentage of alcohol in drinks can vary widely; therefore, if you're drinking beer or wine, read the labels and adjust accordingly. One beer may be your limit for the night, if you're a man—and half a beer may be all you need if you're a woman. You can always ask your bartender to make your cocktail with just one shot of liquor, if you're having mixed drinks. This way, you can be sure that you're having one standard "drink" when you order.

Too much, too often: "at-risk" drinking

According to the National Institutes of Health, "at risk" or "heavy" drinking for men is more than 4 standard drinks in one day or more than 14 standard drinks in one week. For women its more than 3 standard drinks in one day or more than 7 standard drinks in one week.

This shows how fine the line between moderate drinking and at-risk drinking is. That's why it's so important to keep track of how many "drinks" you have when you drink.

Too much, too fast: binge drinking

Binge drinking is a dangerous pattern of drinking that can put your health and safety at serious risk. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as drinking that raises your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent2 or higher.

A rough way to estimate this is:

Women Men
Amount 4 or more standard "drinks" 5 or more standard "drinks"
Time Period 2 hours 2 hours

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse occurs when drinking behavior that causes disruption in your life. If you suffer from alcohol abuse, you may have difficulty with:

  • Making it to work on time
  • Keeping up with your schoolwork
  • Remembering everything that happened when you were drinking (a "blackout")
  • Recovering from drinking the next day

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence or alcoholism is when you need alcohol to function normally and you have trouble controlling your use of alcohol. Alcoholism is a serious condition and should be dealt with right away. Some characteristics of alcohol dependence are:

  • Craving alcohol
  • Needing more drinks to get a euphoric feeling or "high"
  • Having a hard time controlling the number of drinks consumed, once you've started drinking
  • Having withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit

The good news is that help is available from numerous sources. If you find that you have become dependent on alcohol, seek help immediately. There are counseling services through your EAP, a 24-hour help line through SAMHSA3 at 1-800-662-HELP (4357), or you can find your local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous online at or by looking in your local phone book.

Reducing your risk

If you don't drink, don't start. If you do drink, do so in moderation—that's one "drink" or less per day if you're a woman and two "drinks" or less per day if you're a man. Depending on certain health and psychological conditions, you may still have problems even if you drink within these limits. Consult with a professional if you have any questions about whether or not you should drink.

More information

See our risky drinking handout for a printable version of this and more information on alcohol use.

1 A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) publication
2 The legal limit for operating a noncommercial motor vehicle
3 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Defining a Standard Drink:
Not All Drinks Are Considered Equal

Employee Assistance Program

If you need support, you can always contact your EAP (Employee Assistance Program). Offering short-term counseling, the EAP can help you and your family members deal with many of life's challenges, including help with work, family, personal matters, and sometimes legal and financial issues, too. Check your agency's intranet or speak to someone in your HR department for contact information for your EAP.

EAP logoIf your agency is an FOH EAP customer, you have 24/7/365 access to your EAP at absolutely no cost to you. To contact your FOH EAP, call toll free, anytime day or night, 1-800-222-0364 (TTY: 1-888-262-7848) or access the EAP on the Web at