Alcohol in N.Ireland

A quick look at alcohol and its use in our culture.

What is a Unit?Our Drinking Culture

How alcohol affects your health

Alcohol is used to make wine, beer, spirits and liqueurs. It is a legal, sedative drug that can cause addiction or dependency for people who drink too much. Alcohol can change behaviour. Alcohol abuse harms your health and damages relationships and society through violence, crime, accidents and drink driving.

Alcohol is the world’s most widely used drug!

Drinking too much

When you drink too much on a single occasion, the immediate effects are:

– nausea
– vomiting
– a hangover

The long-term effects on your health are more serious when you binge drink or regularly drink too much.

Drink problems

You might have a drink problem if your drinking is:

– damaging your health and relationships

– disrupting your work, education or lifestyle

Young and old people can have a drink problem depending on how often they drink and the way they drink.

Having a drink problem doesn’t mean you’re addicted to alcohol, but you could become addicted if you don’t reduce the role alcohol has in your life.


An alcoholic cannot control or stop their harmful drink. You can die from alcoholism. It is an illness where you have an addiction or dependence on alcohol. You experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking.

There were 270 (Provisional figure) deaths in 2012 and the toll has risen by around 50% over the last decade. The largest number of deaths happened in those aged 45-54 and the most deprived were most likely to die.

The cost

In recent years a real financial cost figure placed on the impact of alcohol ranges from £750 – £900 million p.a. that converts to around one tenth of the entire block grant from Westminster.

Binge drinking

Binge drinking means drinking too much alcohol in a short time. For a man, drinking more than eight units of alcohol on one occasion is a binge. For a woman, it’s more than six units on one occasion.

If you binge drink, you could develop long-term or permanent health problems. Binge drinking can cause:

– blackouts
– memory loss
– anxiety
– irregular heartbeat

The most common drinks consumed are wine (48%) and beer (47%) , coincidentally the 2 types of drinks advertised most by alcohol companies.

Millions are spent on prime time television, whether it be half-time beer advertisements in the Champions League, or wine companies sponsoring the ‘The Good Wife’  and ‘Friends’, alcohol companies are targeting specific groups of people with specific products to enhance sales and trigger the thoughts of alcohol consumption.


A hangover follows a bout of heavy drinking. When you’re hungover, you’re dehydrated and experiencing alcohol poisoning. You also:

  • have a headache
  • feel sick
  • feel tired
  • become irritable

Brain damage


Alcohol can damage your brain. Brain damage affects your:

  • behaviour
  • memory
  • ability to learn

Alcohol is very harmful to young people because their brains are still developing.

If you’re a regular heavy drinker, you risk:

  • permanent brain damage
  • mental health problems
  • alcoholism


What is a unit of alcohol?

Getting to know what is a unit of alcohol can at first seem tricky to understand, read on to get to grips on the new UK guidelines for alcohol and how to best make use of them to safeguard your health.


Alcohol is the second biggest risk for cancer after smoking. If you regularly drink above the weekly alcohol limits, you’re at greater risk of developing:


  • mouth cancer
  • throat cancer (upper throat)
  • oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
  • laryngeal cancer (voice box)
  • colon cancer
  • breast cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • liver cancer

Breast cancer

Alcohol can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. The more you drink, the greater the risk. Drinking alcohol changes your body’s hormone levels, including the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Oestrogen is essential for normal sexual development and functioning female reproductive organs. But it can stimulate the growth of breast cancer.

Heart and circulation

Alcohol can cause high blood pressure, which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Alcohol also weakens heart muscles, which can affect the lungs, liver, brain and other body systems, and also cause heart failure.

Binge drinking and drinking heavily over longer periods can cause an irregular heartbeat. This condition is linked to sudden death.


If you drink alcohol heavily, you’re prone to lung infections such as pneumonia. You could also suffer a collapsed lung.

When a person vomits due to drinking alcohol, they could choke if vomit gets into their lungs.


Fat deposits develop in your liver if you drink too much alcohol. This can inflame the liver and cause alcoholic hepatitis, which can result in liver failure and death.

drinking too much alcohol can permanently scar and damage the liver, resulting in liver cirrhosis. This increases the risk of liver cancer.  

A woman’s liver takes longer to break down alcohol and also longer to repair when damaged.


Drinking too much can lead to:

  • stomach ulcers
  • internal bleeding

Alcohol can also cause gastritis, which means stomach inflammation. This can prevent you absorbing vitamins from food and increase the risk of cancer.


Heavy or long-term drinking can cause inflammation of the pancreas. It is a very painful condition where a drinker experiences:

  • vomiting
  • fever
  • weight loss

A drinker can die from this condition.


Heavy drinking can irritate the lining of your intestines and cause:

  • inflammation and ulcers
  • intestinal and colon cancer

Damage to your intestines also affects your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and vitamins.


Heavy drinking can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure. This causes chronic kidney disease.


Long-term drinking can cause infertility in men and women. Men can also become impotent.

Drinking alcohol when pregnant can damage your unborn baby’s development.


Alcohol interferes with your body’s ability to absorb calcium. If you lack calcium, your bones become weak and thin.

Weight gain

You can put on weight if you drink alcohol regularly. Alcoholic drinks are high in calories due to starch and sugar content. The calories are empty because there is no nutritional value in alcohol.  

Calories in alcoholic drinks

You can compare the calories (kcal) in different quantities of drinks:

  • a pint (568ml) of four per cent  beer has 182 calories
  • a medium glass (175ml) of 13 per cent  wine has 159 calories
  • a pint of 4.5 per cent  cider has 216 calories
  • a measure (35ml) of 40 per cent  spirit has 85 calories


Alcohol dehydrates your body and skin. It also widens blood vessels, causing your skin to look red or blotchy.

Sexual health

Binge drinking makes you lose your inhibitions and affects your judgement. This may make you less likely to use a condom, increasing your risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as chlamydia, HIV or hepatitis. It can also lead to an unplanned pregnancy.

Mental health

Alcohol is linked to mental health problems including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • risk-taking behaviour
  • personality disorders
  • schizophrenia
  • suicide

 Drinking too much can disrupt normal sleeping patterns and cause:

  • insomnia
  • lack of restful sleep

This can make you feel stressed and anxious.

Units of alcohol are a measure of the volume of pure alcohol in an alcoholic beverage. They are used in some countries including Northern Ireland as a guideline for alcohol consumption.

One unit of alcohol is defined as 10 millilitres (7.9 grams) in the United Kingdom, it is often stated that a unit of alcohol is supplied by a small glass of wine, half a pint of beer, or a single measure of spirits. Such statements may be misleading because they do not reflect differences in strength of the various kinds of wines, beers, and spirits.

What are the recommended limits of alcohol?

The government’s unit guidelines state that there’s no safe level of alcohol consumption. Unit guidelines are the same for men and women and both are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units per week.

Keep the short-term health risks low by:

Limiting the total amount of alcohol in one session

drinking more slowly, alternating with food and/or water


If you’re pregnant you shouldn’t drink alcohol at all

Talk to someone, you are not alone.

Lifeline counsellors are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to listen and help, in confidence.

Deaf and hard of hearing Textphone users can call Lifeline on 18001 0808 808 8000. Calls to Lifeline are free to people living in Northern Ireland who are calling from UK landlines and mobiles.

RT @publichealthni: #Freshers are you heading out tonight? A #hangover might make you feel bad for a day or so, but regularly drinking too…
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