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Heavy Drinking | Consequences, Side Effects, & Health Risks

Published on June 22, 2021
Heavy Drinking | Consequences, Side Effects, & Health Risks

Heavy drinking, also known as heavy alcohol use or excessive drinking, is defined as drinking more than 7 drinks for women and 14 drinks for men per week

Heavy drinking is seen in people from almost all income levels, family backgrounds, professions, and even age groups.

A 2017 national survey reported that 6.6% of U.S. adults were heavy drinkers or about 15 million people. Heavy drinking can harm your health and even affect the people around you. If your heavy drinking is a sign of an alcohol use disorder, you may benefit from getting treatment.

Consequences Of Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking can both cloud your judgment and reduce control over your body. This can lead to risky behaviors where you may be confident in doing tasks that you may not actually be fit to do. 

Heavy drinking is also associated with consequences such as:

  • motor vehicle crashes
  • falls
  • drowning
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • fetal alcohol syndrome (for pregnant women who drink)

Side Effects Of Heavy Drinking

Alcohol is a depressant that affects both your brain and body. Large amounts of alcohol can get in the way of basic functions and can even cause dangerous side effects in some cases.

Immediate side effects of heavy drinking include:

  • impairment
  • reduced alertness
  • drowsiness
  • reduced coordination (hand-eye coordination, balance, etc.)
  • changes in mood

These side effects can lead to accidents and risky behaviors. Over time, the side effects of heavy drinking can also turn into long-term health risks.

Long-Term Health Risks Of Heavy Drinking

Heavy drinking can cause serious health problems in the long term. Parts of your respiratory, digestive, and cardiovascular system can be put under stress by heaving drinking. Your mental health may also be at risk, with a range of effects including:

  • weakened immune system
  • high blood pressure
  • chronic disease of vital organs (liver disease or cirrhosis, heart disease, pancreatitis)
  • post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from previous drinking experiences (sexual assault, violence, etc.)
  • types of esophagus, breast, colon, and liver cancer
  • alcohol dependence, addiction, and withdrawal

Alcohol Use Disorder & Withdrawal

Alcohol use disorder is defined as an inability to stop drinking alcohol. Heavy drinking is not a sign of an AUD on its own, but may be when combined with another high-risk pattern of drinking, such as drinking at the cost of your livelihood or relationships.

A heavy drinking habit may work against a person struggling with an alcohol use disorder, as they may already be used to having many alcoholic beverages on a regular basis. This can lead to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking.

People with AUD may be able to survive very high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels due to their very high alcohol tolerance. Severe AUD patients may need at least once alcoholic drink just to get through the day, or risk facing withdrawal.

Underage/Young Adult Heavy Drinking

About 2.5% percent of teenagers and young adults, aged 12 to 20, reported heavy drinking in 2017. Underage groups who drink can hurt their brain development, as there is evidence that alcohol use can change a teenager’s still-growing brain. 

Drinking before age 15 is a risk factor for developing an AUD later on in life, as well as other alcohol related problems.

Young adults, especially college students above the age of 18, have an increased risk of other health problems. Sexual assault, unplanned pregnancy, and suicide attempts all have a high prevalence among heavy drinkers in this age group.

Heavy Drinking Vs. Binge Drinking

Heavy drinking and binge drinking are both forms of excessive alcohol use, but they have key differences.

Binge drinking is defined as excessive alcohol consumption on a single occasion. Heavy drinking is consuming large amounts of alcohol over a longer period of time, usually per week.

Not everyone who binge drinks practices heavy drinking, and not everyone who practices heavy drinking binge drinks.

If you suspect a loved one or family member is drinking too much alcohol, you may be able to get them the help they need. To find treatment options for yourself or a loved one, talk to your healthcare provider or contact us today.

Heavy Drinking FAQ

Are Heavy Drinkers Alcoholics?

People who are heavy drinkers tend to consume 3-4 drinks during a single day or 14-15 drinks per week. Despite this, heavy drinkers are not necessarily alcoholics. Alcoholism requires that the person has the inability to control their drinking. 

Continuing to participate in heavy or excessive drinking can result in alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder (AUD).

To learn more, read Are All Heavy Drinkers Alcoholic?

What’s The Difference Between Binge Drinking & Heavy Drinking?

Binge drinking happens when you have 5 or more drinks in one sitting. Heavy drinking happens when you have 15 or more drinks in a week. Binge drinking is more likely to affect your health in the short-term, while heavy drinking is more likely to affect your health in the long-term.

Learn more about Binge Drinking Vs. Heavy Drinking

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Drinking too much alcohol can harm your health. Learn the facts
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Drinking Levels Defined
PubMed Central - The Limits of Tolerance: Convicted Alcohol-Impaired Drivers Share Experiences Driving Under the Influence
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - ALCOHOL USE

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