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How Much Alcohol Does It Take to Increase Risks for Harm?

Posted on February 11th, 2015
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Armed with information drawn from 37 emergency rooms in 18 countries, researchers have found that the consumption of just one standard serving of alcohol increases the odds of exposure to serious injury by more than 100 percent.

One of the primary long-term harms associated with excessive alcohol consumption is the onset of alcohol use disorder, a disease that encompasses the symptoms of non-dependent alcohol abuse and the symptoms of alcohol dependence (alcoholism). Every regular daily and weekly episode of heavy drinking (intake above the recommended maximum for fairly safe moderate drinking) increases the odds that a person will meet the criteria used to diagnose this condition; roughly half of all people who drink heavily a minimum of twice a week will develop alcohol use disorder.

An ongoing pattern of heavy drinking can also have a severely damaging impact on the health of key organs that include the heart, the liver and the brain. Much of the heart-related damage of excessive drinking comes from alcohol’s ability to substantially increase blood pressure over time. Prominent forms of alcohol-related liver disease include alcoholic hepatitis (liver inflammation) and alcoholic cirrhosis (liver tissue scarring). A person who drinks heavily over an extended period of time can develop long-lasting or permanent deficits in memory processing and other key mental skills. He or she can also develop a psychosis- and dementia-producing brain disease called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Alcohol and Short-Term Harm

Significant numbers of people in the U.S. and other countries drastically increase their risks for seriously negative short-term, alcohol-related consequences by participating in binge drinking, an activity that by its very definition produces a legally drunken state in two hours or less. One of the most prominent results of binge drinking is alcohol poisoning, a potentially deadly buildup of alcohol in the bloodstream that sharply decreases the normal amount of activity in the central nervous system. Other prominent risks of alcohol binging include exposure to motor vehicle accidents, exposure to other forms of accidental injury, exposure to purposeful acts of violence on the part of others (including physical assaults and sexual assaults) and exposure to potentially deadly diseases transmitted through unprotected sex.

How Much Alcohol Does It Take?

In a study published in October 2014 in the journal Addiction, researchers from the Alcohol Research Group, the Pan American Health Organization and Mexico’s National Institute of Psychiatry used information drawn from 37 emergency rooms in 18 countries to help determine the amount of alcohol it takes to increase a person’s odds of incurring forms of alcohol-related harm serious enough to require some form of rapid medical treatment. A total of 13,119 people participated in the project; all of these individuals sustained an injury a maximum of six hours after consuming alcohol. For each individual, the researchers examined factors that included gender, age, the amount of alcohol consumed and the specific types of harm associated with alcohol intake.

After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that, statistically speaking, the consumption of even one alcoholic drink increases the odds of exposure to a serious injury by more than 100 percent. The risks for injury rise from this point on a per-drink basis before reaching a more or less maximum level of risk in people who consume a highly dangerous 30 alcohol servings (the equivalent of 18 fluid oz. of pure alcohol) in a six-hour timeframe. When they consume as many as three drinks, men and women have roughly equal chances of experiencing short-term, alcohol-related harm. However, the risks for women accelerate more rapidly from that point and produce a clear gender-based difference among people who consume at least 20 servings of alcohol (the equivalent of 12 fluid oz. of pure alcohol).

The study’s authors note that nationwide patterns of alcohol consumption can also have an influence on the odds that any single person will experience serious short-term, alcohol-related harm. Some countries consume alcohol more heavily than others and therefore have more citizens exposed to rapidly developing, negative drinking consequences.

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