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Alcohol use and abuse: 5 things to know

When it comes to alcohol, there are scientific benchmarks that can help people determine when drinking has reached an unsafe level. But sometimes the issue isn’t so clear cut, says Dr. Judith Overton, a medical director for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

“We need to look at alcohol and substance-related issues as a spectrum,” she says. “Not everybody needs a 90-day program. What everybody does need is to have the tools available to figure out if they have a problem, and to get the right treatment if they do.”

Here are 5 alcohol awareness tips that everyone should know.

1. Although drinking is more socially accepted than other substance use, it can still be dangerous.

“Alcohol-related illness is still the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.,”says Dr. Overton. “It’s not new, and most people accept drinking much more than drug use, so we don’t talk about it as often. But that’s exactly what can make it so dangerous.”

Excessive alcohol use damages the liver, kidneys and other organs, including the brain. Problematic alcohol usage can also be easier to hide than other substance use until later stages of the disorder. For half of people who experience alcohol misuse or dependence, it’s a chronic problem that can worsen over time.

2. You don’t have to suffer from alcohol dependence to experience negative health effects of alcohol.

Experts estimate that consumption of the following amounts of alcohol can increase health risks in otherwise healthy adults:

  • Men under 65:
    • 14+ drinks per week on average
    • 4+ drinks on any day
  • Women and adults over 65:
    • 7+ drinks per week on average
    • 3+ drinks on any day

Another unsafe behavior is binge drinking, or consuming 5 drinks in 2 hours for men, or 4 drinks in 2 hours for women.

“One key thing to note is that these are all ‘standard drinks,’ which means 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1.5 ounces of 80 proof spirits,” says Dr. Overton. “It can be challenging to keep an accurate count of beverages, especially if they’re being prepared by others or glasses are just repeatedly refilled.”

3. The older we get, the alcohol affects us differently.

“As we age, our ability to clear alcohol changes,” says Dr. Overton. “The amount of alcohol our body can metabolize is significantly lower, and we have to adjust our behavior accordingly.”

4. Patterns of behavior are key.

When it comes to identifying alcohol misuse, there are behaviors everyone can look out for in themselves and in others. These include:

  • Impaired judgement regarding safety (ex. drinking and driving)
  • Memory problems
  • Missing out on activities because of the effects of alcohol (being intoxicated or hungover)
  • Minimizing others’ concerns about observed drinking patterns
  • Increased emotional distancing from friends and family

There are also questions we can all ask ourselves, says Dr. Overton, to gauge whether we might have a problem.

  • Has there ever been a time that you or someone who cared about you has voiced concern about your drinking?
  • Has there ever been a time you’ve regretted your decisions about alcohol consumption?
  • Do you wake up often thinking, “I wish I hadn’t done that.”

“If those thoughts sound familiar, it couldn’t hurt to take a closer look at your alcohol use,” says Dr. Overton. “If you’re not sure, you can always start with an online assessment.”

5. There are many ways to get help with alcohol abuse.

“Sometimes people don’t feel safe talking about drinking problems to the people closest to them,” says Dr. Overton. “They’re ashamed of what they’re actually doing, and they fear negative reactions or consequences if they’re open about their difficulties. That’s where a counselor might be the right call because there are privacy laws to protect what you disclose in treatment.”

Safe places to reach out include:

  • A primary care physician (PCP) is a great place to start, and many offer telehealth conferencing so appointments can be done remotely.
  • For confidential help with alcohol misuse, anyone can visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or call 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
  • For BlueCross members, BCBST has case managers and an employee assistance program available to confidentially direct you to a counselor or treatment program.
    • Reach a BCBST case manager at 1-800-225-8698, or
    • Access SupportLinc, the EAP program, at 1-888-881-LINC (5462), at com with username bcbst or by email:

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