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Women and Alcohol

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Research shows that drinking, binge drinking, and extreme binge drinking by women are all increasing. While alcohol misuse by anyone presents serious public health concerns, women who drink have a higher risk of certain alcohol-related problems compared to men. Women should be aware of these health risks and make informed decisions about alcohol use.

Why Do Women Face Higher Risks?

Studies show that women start to have alcohol-related problems sooner and at lower drinking levels than men and for multiple reasons. On average, women weigh less than men. Also, alcohol resides predominantly in body water, and pound for pound, women have less water in their bodies than men. This means that after a woman and a man of the same weight drink the same amount of alcohol, the woman’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC, the amount of alcohol in the blood) will tend to be higher, putting her at greater risk for harm. Other biological differences may contribute as well.

What Are the Long-Term Health Risks?

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. AUD can range from mild to severe1, and recovery is possible regardless of severity.


Snapshot: Alcohol Use by Women in the United States

Women

Men

Drank alcohol in the past month

51.1%

61.3%

Engaged in binge drinking in the past month

22.0%

32.1%

Engaged in heavy alcohol use in the past month

4.5%

9.8%

Had alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the past year

4.2%

8.4%

Had AUD and received any treatment in the past year

5.4 %

7.4%

Pregnant and used alcohol in the past month

9.3%


Percentages represent U.S. adults aged 18 years and older who used alcohol or had AUD, with the exception of "pregnant and used alcohol in the past month," which represents females aged 15–44.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2015.

 

Liver Damage

Women who regularly misuse alcohol are more likely to develop alcoholic hepatitis, a serious acute illness, than men who drink the same amount of alcohol. This pattern of drinking can also lead to cirrhosis (liver scarring and shrinkage).

Heart Disease

Long-term alcohol misuse is a leading cause of heart disease. Women are more susceptible to alcohol-related heart disease than men, even though they may consume less alcohol over their lifetime than men.

Brain Damage

Research suggests that alcohol misuse produces brain damage more quickly in women than in men. In addition, because alcohol can disrupt the development of the brain during the adolescent years, teen girls who drink may be more vulnerable to brain damage than teen boys who drink. Women also may be more susceptible than men to alcohol-related blackouts, defined as periods of memory loss of events during intoxication without loss of consciousness.

Breast Cancer

There is an association between drinking alcohol and developing breast cancer. Studies demonstrate that women who consume about one drink per day have a 5–9 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who do not drink at all. That risk increases for every additional drink they have per day.

Pregnancy

Any drinking during pregnancy can be harmful. A woman who drinks during pregnancy puts her fetus at risk for physical, cognitive, or behavioral problems. (See https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/FASDFactsheet/FASDfact.htm for more information on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.) Drinking during pregnancy can also increase the risk for preterm labor.

 

Some women should avoid alcohol entirely, including:

  • Anyone who is pregnant or trying to conceive
  • Anyone younger than age 21
  • Anyone who takes medications that can interact negatively with alcohol

 

To see if your pattern of alcohol use puts you at risk for AUD, please visit Rethinking Drinking at https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov.


1 To be diagnosed with AUD, a person must meet certain diagnostic criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition. (See https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/dsmfactsheet/DSMfact.pdf).

Updated June 2017