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INTRODUCTION

Introduction

This Guide is written for primary care and mental health clinicians. It has been produced by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a component of the National Institutes of Health, with guidance from physicians, nurses, advanced practice nurses, physician assistants, and clinical researchers.

How much is “too much”?

Drinking becomes too much when it causes or elevates the risk for alcohol-related problems or complicates the management of other health problems. According to epidemiologic research, men who drink more than 4 standard drinks in a day (or more than 14 per week) and women who drink more than 3 in a day (or more than 7 per week) are at increased risk for alcohol-related problems.1

Individual responses to alcohol vary, however. Drinking at lower levels may be problematic depending on many factors, such as age, coexisting conditions, and use of medication. Because it isn’t known whether any amount of alcohol is safe during pregnancy, the Surgeon General urges abstinence for women who are or may become pregnant. 2

Why screen for heavy drinking?

  • At-risk drinking and alcohol problems are common. About 3 in 10 U.S. adults drink at levels that elevate their risk for physical, mental health, and social problems.3 Of these heavy drinkers, about 1 in 4 currently has alcohol abuse or dependence.3 All heavy drinkers have a greater risk of hypertension, gastro-intestinal bleeding, sleep disorders, major depression, hemorrhagic stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, and several cancers.4
  • Heavy drinking often goes undetected. In a recent study of primary care practices, for example, patients with alcohol dependence received the recommended quality of care, including assessment and referral to treatment, only about 10 percent of the time.5
  • Patients are likely to be more receptive, open, and ready to change than you expect. Most patients don’t object to being screened for alcohol use by clinicians and are open to hearing advice afterward.6 In addition, most primary care patients who screen positive for heavy drinking or alcohol use disorders show some motivational readiness to change, with those who have the most severe symptoms being the most ready.7
  • You are in a prime position to make a difference. Clinical trials have demonstrated that brief interventions can promote significant, lasting reductions in drinking levels in at-risk drinkers who are not alcohol dependent.8 Some drinkers who are dependent will accept referral to addiction treatment programs. Even for patients who do not accept a referral, repeated alcohol-focused visits with a health provider can lead to significant improvement.9,10

If you're not already doing so, we encourage you to incorporate alcohol screening and intervention into your practice. With this Guide, you have what you need to begin.

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