It's the end of a long week—or a long day—and if you're like many Americans, you reach for glass of wine, beer, or a cocktail to help you unwind. This behavior is considered normal as well as socially acceptable. Popular television shows like Mad Men glamorize drinking alcohol, which can make it hard to imagine a party, celebration, or sporting event without it.

In truth, about three out of every four U.S. adults never exceed the threshold for "problem drinking." According to an extensive survey conducted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), for men, that translates to five or more drinks in a day (for women it's four or more). Still nearly 17.6 million adults in the U.S. are alcoholics or have alcohol problems, and more than 79,000 deaths per year are attributed to alcohol misuse.

So, how do you know if the drinking you do in social settings is dangerous? First, here's some background on alcoholism. Alcoholism is a disease with four main features, as defined by the NIAAA:

  • A craving or a strong need to drink.
  • Loss of control or the inability to stop drinking once you've begun.
  • Physical dependence shown by withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, or shakiness once drinking has ceased.
  • Tolerance for having increasing amounts of alcohol in order to get a "high."

It's possible for a person to dangerously abuse alcohol-drink too much and too often-but still not be dependent on alcohol. Alcohol dependency often interferes with an individual's ability to meet work, school, and/or family responsibilities. Social drinking can be especially dangerous when driving or when taking certain over-the-counter and prescription medications. 

Men Behaving Badly

Heavy drinking is dangerous. It causes damage to the liver, brain, and other organs and can increase the risk of certain cancers. You're also more likely to die from car crashes and other injuries if you over do it, and both homicide and suicide rates are higher in this population. For men, excessive alcohol use can interfere with testicular function and male hormone production resulting in impotence, infertility, and reduction of male secondary sex characteristics such as facial and chest hair.

Problem drinkers habitually exceed the acceptable daily limit of two drinks for men (and one for women) or who binge, meaning they consume five or more drinks at any one sitting. Standard drink sizes are: 12 ounces of beer; five ounces of wine (the standard 750 ml bottle contains five drinks) or 1.5 ounces of hard liquor/spirits such as whiskey, gin, and vodka.

Problem drinkers (compared to alcoholics) tend to be younger, have been misusing alcohol for a shorter period of time, and are still able to hold jobs. They also tend to have better social support from friends and family.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), excessive alcohol use affects more men than women. Men consistently have higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations than women, says the CDC. And, among drivers in fatal motor-vehicle traffic crashes, men are almost twice as likely as women to have been legally intoxicated.

Protect yourself from alcohol misuse with these practical tips:

  • Don't have more than one alcoholic drink per hour. Alternate alcoholic drinks with club soda, soft drinks, or water.
  • Always use a shot glass when measuring hard liquor to prevent under estimates.
  • Never exceed 14 drinks per week.
  • Don't drink on an empty stomach. Food helps delay the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream.
  • If you enjoy spirits, (gin, vodka, etc.) dilute drinks with a mixer. Drinks served "neat" or "on the rocks" metabolize in the body more quickly.




National Institutes of Health

National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD)

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism