Many of us enjoy having an alcoholic drink now and then and it can be an important part of socialising and celebrating. However, regularly drinking more than the recommended daily limits of alcohol can put you at risk of developing serious health problems.


Alcohol is measured in units. One unit of alcohol (equivalent to 10ml of pure alcohol) is about half a pint of normal strength lager, a small glass of wine or a single measure (25ml) of spirits. It is recommended that:
Men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day and no more than 21 units a week.
Women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units of alcohol a day and no more than 14 units a week.
It is also recommended that you have at least 2 alcohol-free days every week to allow some time for your liver to recover from the toxic effects of drinking.
There is no guaranteed safe level of drinking, but if you drink less than the recommended limits, the risks of harming your health are low. Consuming more than the recommended limits can be harmful to your health and the more you drink the greater this risk is. Health problems associated with drinking too much alcohol include inflammation of the pancreas, cirrhosis (liver disease), depression, cancer and heart disease. As we age our ability to process alcohol reduces which means even drinking slightly more than the recommended limits can have a profound effect on health. In Scotland around 10% of people aged 65 or over exceed the recommended drinking levels.

Problem Drinking


Alcohol can become a problem if you are drinking more than the recommended limits. This is termed alcohol misuse and there are three main types: hazardous drinking, harmful drinking and dependent drinking.

Hazardous drinking

Hazardous drinking is drinking over the recommended daily or weekly limits of alcohol. This may happen due to ‘binge’ drinking, where a large amount of alcohol is consumed in a day – over 8 units a day for men and over 6 units a day for women. Hazardous drinking may not cause any obvious or immediate problems but it increases the risk of developing problems in the future.

Harmful drinking

Harmful drinking occurs when a person drinks over the recommended weekly limits of alcohol and experiences health problems directly related to their drinking. These health problems can include an alcohol-related injury such as a fall, high blood pressure, cirrhosis and heart disease. Many of these do no cause symptoms until they are quite advanced so you may be damaging your health without realising.  

Dependent drinking

Alcohol dependency occurs when a person feels they are unable to function in day to day life without alcohol and drinking alcohol becomes something they feel they ‘have’ to do in order to cope. This addiction can be physical or psychological and involves a person continuing to drink despite it causing problems with their physical health, mental health, and responsibilities such as family and work. People who are dependent on alcohol often:


  • Drink alone
  • Drink early or first thing in the morning
  • Become hostile when asked about drinking
  • Make excuses to drink
  • Stop taking part in activities because of alcohol
  • Need to use alcohol on most days to get through the day
  • Neglect to eat or eat poorly
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms if they do not drink alcohol
  • Cannot control drinking -- being unable to stop or reduce alcohol intake

Alcohol misuse may also lead to an increased likelihood of falls, incontinence, cognitive impairment, hypothermia and self-neglect. These sorts of problems can often be missed as they may be regarded as signs of ageing. It is important to try and recognise how much you are drinking and if you think you are experiencing problems with alcohol it is very important to talk to your GP who will be able to offer you help and support.

If you go to your GP because you are concerned about your drinking, or you receive treatment for an alcohol-related injury or illness, the extent of your alcohol use is likely to be assessed. This is usually done through a question and answer assessment. You will be asked how often you drink, how much you drink, what you and those around you think about your drinking habits and how alcohol is affecting your life. It is important to be truthful in your answers. If you cannot remember or are unaware of how much you drink try and keep a diary of your drinking habits.

Treatment for alcohol misuse will vary depending on whether you need to cut down your intake or stop drinking alcohol entirely. Stopping drinking alcohol (often called abstinence) is usually recommended if you are dependent on, or addicted to, alcohol and will have the most health benefits. Abstinence is strongly recommended if you have health problems as a direct cause of drinking such as liver disease. Often people find giving up entirely is actually easier than trying to stay within the recommended guidelines. Counselling or guidance sessions are often offered to help with the process of cutting down or stopping alcohol intake as well as follow up sessions to monitor progress.

Changing your drinking behaviour can be very difficult especially if you have been drinking heavily for a long period of time. There are many organisations that can offer support to individuals, and their family and friends, through this process. See the useful links below.

Help and Support

Drink Smarter

Visit the Drink Smarter website

Drinkline: 0800 7 314 314

Drink Smarter offer online information and a helpline for people in Scotland affected by alcohol problems.

Alcoholics Anonymous

Visit the Alcoholics Anonymous website

Helpline: 0845 769 7555

Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for A.A. membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions

Al-Anon Family Groups

Visit the Al-Anon website

Helpline: 0141 339 8884. Open 10am-10pm, 365 days a year.  

Al-Anon Family Groups is an organisation for the relatives and friends of alcoholics, who share their experience, strength and hope with each other in order to solve their common problems. Al-Anon has one purpose: to help the families and friends of alcoholics.

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Silver Line Scotland:
0800 4 70 80 90

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