SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Alcohol affects people in different ways. The effects of drinking alcohol can vary depending on your age, size, weight, health and other risk factors.
- Heavy and binge drinking can cause serious health effects.
- The size of a standard drink can vary according to the type of alcohol.
- It is safest not to drink if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.
On this page
- Alcohol use in Australia
- Potential health risks of drinking alcohol
- Australia's recommended standard drink guidelines
- Alcohol content of a standard drink
- Keeping track of how much alcohol you’re drinking
- How the body processes alcohol
- Effects of alcohol on your health
- Effects of alcohol on an unborn baby
- Alcohol and breastfeeding
- Health effects of binge drinking
- Alcohol and driving
- Alcohol takes time to leave the body
- Health benefits of cutting down your alcohol intake
- How to drink responsibly
- Where to get help
Alcohol use in Australia
Alcohol is the most widely used social drug in Australia. It is a depressant drug that slows down the messages travelling between the brain and body. Alcohol and can affect people in different ways.
The ‘riskier’ someone’s level of drinking is, the more likely it is to cause serious health, personal and social problems. Heavy drinkers, binge drinkers and very young drinkers are particularly at risk.
The health effects of alcohol consumption can vary depending on your age, size, weight, current health and other risk factors.
Binge drinking is a problem among younger age groups, but anyone who drinks heavily on a frequent basis, or drinks too much in one session is at risk of both immediate and long-term alcohol-related harm.
The risk of injury and disease increases the more you drink.
It is safest not to drink at all when you are pregnant, planning a pregnancy or breastfeeding.
If you plan to drive, it is better not to drink alcohol at all.
Potential health risks of drinking alcohol
Drinking alcohol can increase your risk of alcohol-related illness and injury including:
- bowel, breast, throat and mouth cancer
- liver disease
- cardiovascular disease (CVD) (such as heart disease and stroke)
- accidents and falls (such as motor vehicle crashes and alcohol poisoning).
The less you drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm. For some people, not drinking at all is the safest option.
Australia's recommended standard drink guidelines
The Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) sets the guidelines to reduce the health risks from drinking alcohol. While there is no safe level of drinking, the guidelines recommend a level of drinking that is considered lower risk.
The NHMRC recommends the following:
Any drinking above these recommended levels carries a higher risk. The more you drink, the higher the risk.
Mixing alcohol and other drugs (known as polydrug use) – with either illegal drugs or some prescription drugs – can also cause serious health problems.
Alcohol content of a standard drink
Different types of alcoholic drinks contain different amounts of pure alcohol. If you’re somebody who chooses to drink alcohol, this can make it tricky to keep track of how much you’re actually drinking.
In fact, one serving is usually more than one 'standard drink'.
A standard drink contains 10g of alcohol. However, the size of a standard drink can vary according to the type of alcohol. It can also vary between brands or labels.
Sizes of standard drinks can vary
Image courtesy of the Alcohol and Drug Foundation, Australia
As a general guide, one standard drink equals:
- 285ml (1 pot/middy/half-pint) of regular beer (4.8% alcohol)
- 375ml (1 stubby) of mid-strength beer (3.5% alcohol)
- 100ml (or 1 small glass) of red table wine (approx.13.5% alcohol)
- 30ml of spirits (approx. 40% alcohol) plus mixer.
It is important to remember that sizes of standard drinks vary by:
- Type of alcohol – for instance, some cocktails may have as much alcohol as 4 standard drinks despite having less ml than a schooner (called a 'pot' in Victoria) of beer.
- Brands or labels – for example, wine varies considerably in alcohol content depending on what brand or type – usually between 9% and 16%.
- Your location – drink sizes can differ among hotels, bars and restaurants and how you choose to drink at home.
Keeping track of how much alcohol you’re drinking
If you are keen to keep track of how much alcohol you are drinking, you can do this by counting your standard drinks. Suggestions include:
- Read product labels – by law in Australia, alcohol products must show the number of standard drinks they contain.
- Ask bar staff or anyone who is serving you alcohol.
- Use a drink calculator from a trusted source (such as Drink Thing, Your Room or Cancer Council).
How the body processes alcohol
Alcohol gets into the bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine. If you have food in your stomach, it will slow down the rate the alcohol is absorbed, but it will not stop you from becoming drunk. Eventually, all the alcohol you have had will reach your bloodstream.
Most of the alcohol in the body (about 91%) is broken down by the liver. A small amount also leaves the body in urine, sweat and the breath.
Since the liver can only break down about 1 standard drink an hour, sobering up takes time. Cold showers, exercise, black coffee, fresh air or vomiting will not speed up the process.
Effects of alcohol on your health
Drinking alcohol can affect our body functions in the following way:
- cardiovascular system – raises blood pressure and triglycerides (especially after binge drinking), damage to the heart muscle and stroke
- nervous system – affects coordination, self-control, judgement and reaction times. May also cause nerve and brain damage, tremors and dementia.
- mental health – alcohol can worsen current mental health conditions (such as depression or anxiety) and increase suicide risk.
- gastrointestinal system – stomach inflammation (gastritis) and bleeding.
- liver – liver and pancreatic cancer, hepatitis (inflammation), fatty changes, cirrhosis and liver failure.
- endocrine system – reduced fertility, loss of libido and problems controlling blood sugar.
- malnutrition (alcohol displaces nutrients from your body).
- weight gain which can lead to obesity and increase diabetes risk.
- breast cancer – women who drink alcohol are at a higher risk than women who don’t drink.
Drinking alcohol can affect how the brain develops in people under the age of 25. Teenagers under 18 years are particularly at risk.
Effects of alcohol on an unborn baby
Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can increase a baby’s risk of being:
- born with a range of developmental, behavioural and physical effects – known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
It may be that even a low intake of alcohol, at any stage of pregnancy, could be harmful to your unborn baby. For this reason, drinking alcohol is not recommended during pregnancy or if you are planning pregnancy.
Alcohol and breastfeeding
Alcohol can reduce breastmilk supply. It can also pass to your baby through breastmilk, and may cause damage to their developing brain.
If you are breastfeeding, it is best to avoid drinking alcohol. Current evidence suggests there is no ‘safe’ or ‘no-risk’ level of alcohol for breastfeeding mothers.
If you choose to drink alcohol, it is best wait up to 2 hours before breastfeeding your baby for each standard drink. (For example, if you have two standard drinks you should wait four hours before you breastfeed.)
Download the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s free Feed Safe app to help you monitor your drinking while breastfeeding.
Health effects of binge drinking
Binge drinking is commonly used to describe heavy drinking over a short time to get drunk (or intoxicated).
The effects of large amounts of alcohol are immediate and severe and may cause:
- blurred vision
- poor muscle control
- nausea and vomiting
- sleep, coma or even death
- impaired judgement and ability to make decisions which can increase your likelihood of doing something dangerous.
Alcohol and driving
Alcohol can impair coordination and judgement. It is a major cause of road injury in Australia.
There is no set number of drinks that you can have to stay under .05 BAC (blood alcohol concentration).
The rate of alcohol absorption in the body varies depending on:
- body size
- body fat
- amount of food in the stomach
- liver health
- alcohol tolerance
- strength of drinks
For instance, you may drink the same number of drinks on different occasions and have entirely different BAC levels.
It is safest to avoid drinking alcohol if you need to drive or operate heavy machinery.
If you do drink and decide to drive afterwards, keep your BAC under the legal limit for driving (in Australia, this is .05 BAC).
Alcohol takes time to leave the body
Alcohol takes time to completely leave your system. After a night of drinking, you may still have alcohol in your body for several hours or even the next day. That's why it's important for learner and probationary drivers; and drivers of trucks, buses, trams and trains, to stick to a zero-blood alcohol limit.
It is difficult to determine the exact amount of drinks to stay under the BAC limit. You may get some idea by recording your drinks or testing yourself with a fully calibrated breath testing machine.
As a general rule, it takes one hour for the body to break down a standard drink.
Although breath testing machines are available commercially and in venues, they may give an incorrect reading if they are not calibrated properly which can be dangerous.
Even if you have checked on a breathalyser that you are okay to drive, you may not be. BAC can increase after your last drink, which could push you over the .05 limit while you are on the road.
Health benefits of cutting down your alcohol intake
Reducing your alcohol intake or not drinking altogether can have immediate benefits to your health and lifestyle. These include:
- No hangover or dehydration, and reduced risk of alcohol poisoning.
- Better sleep – alcohol is a depressant that slows down the nervous system and disturbs sleep patterns. Even though alcohol can make you fall asleep quicker, the overall quality of sleep can be poor. If you binge drink, your melatonin levels can be affected for a week.
- Healthier skin – drinking alcohol can cause your skin to look and feel dehydrated, and can lead to things like redness and broken capillaries.
- Improved mental health – you may have more clarity, better concentration and more energy.
- Better immunity.
- Weight changes and less likely to gain weight – some alcoholic drinks contain loads of sugar and carbohydrates, and that means a lot of kilojoules (calories). Alcohol can also make you crave junk food or foods that are not as healthy (such as salty snacks).
- Cost savings – not only on the money you spend on alcohol but the costs in having a night out!
How to drink responsibly
Remember, you don’t always have to drink alcohol to have a good time. If you are looking to drink less at an event or on a night out, here are some strategies you can use to monitor and reduce your intake:
- Don’t have pre drinks before you go out.
- Set a drinking limit before the event and stick to it.
- Start with a non-alcoholic drink – try some of these healthy drink recipes from Livelighter.
- Eat before and while drinking to slow the absorption of alcohol into your bloodstream.
- Avoid salty snacks that make you thirsty and make you drink more.
- Make every second or third drink non-alcoholic.
- Try low-alcohol drinks.
- Don’t get in a shout or allow someone else to buy drinks for you.
- Always keep your drink with you to minimise the risk of drink spiking.
- Stay within the recommended guidelines for low-risk drinking.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- DrugInfo. Tel. 1300 85 85 84 – for information and advice
- DirectLine. Tel. 1800 888 236 – for counselling and referral
- Youth Drug and Alcohol Advice service (YoDAA), Victoria Tel. 1800 458 685 (9am to 8pm, Monday to Friday)
- Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, 2020, National Health and Medical Research Council
- Alcohol, 2022, Alcohol and Drug Foundation
- Alcohol, Department of Health, Australian Government
- Alcohol and other drugs, VicRoads, Victorian Government
- Caffeine, food, alcohol, smoking and sleep, Sleep Foundation, Australia.