How does alcohol affect my health?

Alcohol can be harmful to your health. Physical, mental, emotional and social issues increase when someone uses alcohol:

  • At an early age
  • Often
  • In large amounts
  • When taking medicine or other drugs that interact with alcohol
  • When pregnant or planning to be pregnant
  • Frequently over a long period of time.

Short-term risks

Alcohol impairs reaction time, judgment, decision making, and can have serious, even deadly, consequences. Learn more about binge drinking.

Drinking more than 3 drinks (for women) and 4 drinks (for men) on any single occasion increases risk of injury and harm. Follow the low-risk drinking guidelines to reduce your risks.

Drinking a lot of alcohol in a short time makes it difficult for your body to get rid of the alcohol. Too much alcohol could lead to alcohol poisoning.

Long-Term risks

Alcohol causes at least 60 types of diseases and injuries, and contributes to more than 200 others. Long-term use of alcohol can lead to chronic illnesses including:

  • Cancer
  • Liver disease (cirrhosis)
  • Heart disease and stroke (high blood pressure)
  • Diseases of the stomach, digestive system and pancreas
  • Brain and nerve damage
  • Depression
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) from maternal use during pregnancy
  • Alcoholism

Alcohol and cancer

Alcohol is linked to cancer of the breast, mouth, pharynx, larynx and esophagus, colon and rectum cancer, as well as liver and pancreas.

The more you drink, the higher your risk of cancer. The type of alcohol does not matter. Women should drink less than 1 drink a day for women; men should drink less than 2 drinks a day for men.  

Find out My CancerIQ and steps you can take to help reduce your cancer risk.

Alcohol and youth

Drinking alcohol can have negative effects on a young person's developing brain and puts them at risk for injury, doing something they regret or even alcohol poisoning.

Drinking young + more often = a risk of problems

Find out more about youth and alcohol:

Alcohol and caffeine

Avoid mixing Alcohol and Caffeine (PDF) which can create extra risks.

Benefits of alcohol

For most people the overall harmful effects of alcohol outweigh any benefits from low levels of drinking, particularly for women.

Healthy eating and physical activity are less risky ways to achieve health benefits. There are no health benefits to alcohol consumption for youth.

How to measure a drink? 

What is a standard drink?

The size and percentage (%) of alcohol matters.

Beer, coolers, ciders and wine contain different alcohol % and are served in different sizes. Bigger sizes and higher alcohol % increase the alcohol content.

In the picture below, all the drinks have the same amount of alcohol. Each drink is one standard drink. The bigger glass has a lower alcohol % and the smallest size has the higher alcohol % which is how they end up having the same amount of alcohol.

Image showing the standard drinks for, Beer at 5%, 341 ml, 12 oz in a typical bottle, wine at 12%, 142ml, 12 oz. in a glass and spirits (Hard Liquor) at 40%, 43 ml, 1.5oz

Read the label to learn the alcohol % and measure the size of your drink to estimate standard drinks.

Interested in calculating your standard drink amount?  Below is the formula to calculate or use an online calculator.

The number of standard drinks = (volume oz) X (alcohol %) / 0.6

How can I lower my risk of injury or illness?

Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines

If you choose to drink, Canada's Low Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines can help you reduce short and long-term risks. Plan non-drinking days every week to avoid developing a habit.

Reduce your long-term health risk by drinking no more than:

  • 10 standard drinks a week for women, with no more than 2 drinks most days
  • 15 standard drinks a week for men, with no more than 3 drinks a day most days

Sometimes zero is the limit. Do not drink when you are:

  • Driving a vehicle or using machinery and tools
  • Taking medicine or other drugs that interact with alcohol
  • Doing any kind of dangerous physical activity
  • Living with mental or physical health problems
  • Living with alcohol dependence
  • Pregnant or planning to be pregnant
  • Responsible for the safety of others
  • Making important decisions

Low-risk drinking tips:

  • Set limits for yourself before each drinking occasion.
  • Drink slowly. Have no more than 2 drinks in any 3 hours.
  • For every drink of alcohol, have one non-alcoholic drink.
  • Eat before and while you are drinking.
  • Always consider your age, body weight and health problems that might suggest lower limits.
How much and how often are we drinking in Ottawa?
  • Over 80% of adults in Ottawa drink alcohol
  • About 22% of adults drink more than the recommended weekly limits
  • 20% of students in gr 7 to 12 reported they were drunk in the past month
  • 24% of high school students reported using alcohol before grade 9
  • Heavy drinking in Ottawa peaks in young adults (aged 19-24 years) who binge drink more than adults aged 25 years and older
  • People with higher income drink more, however people of lower income and education suffer more harm
  • Adults with a mother tongue of English or French are more likely to exceed recommended daily and weekly limits

Read more about alcohol in Ottawa in the Status of Alcohol in Ottawa: Let's Continue the Conversation report.

Read more reports and statistics about alcohol and substance use, including the Ottawa Student Drug Use and Health (OSDUH) Report.

How do I compare? 

Check your drinking logoDo you want to know how your drinking compares to others? Concerned about your drinking? Try this free, anonymous and bilingual survey.

When you have finished the survey you can print or email your results directly to yourself, your physician or other health care professional. 

What are second-hand effects of alcohol? 

Drinking can cause damage, injury and distress that spreads to affect others. A term used to describe the harm or costs to a community from someone else's drinking is called second-hand effects of drinking. Second-hand effects are often linked with heavy or binge drinking.Examples of second-hand effects include:

  • Alcohol-related crimes
  • Violence
  • Impaired driving
  • Emotional or physical abuse
  • Family and personal harm
  • Financial, work and school problems
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Costs and impacts to community services (e.g. costs to hospitals, policing & treatment agencies)

Learn more about:

Impaired driving:

How can you join the alcohol conversation?

A scale showing life balance with alcohol#LetsTalkAlcohol

The harms from alcohol reach many and affect our whole community. Everyone has a part to play to change the drinking culture in Ottawa. Are you concerned? Join the conversation about alcohol in the Ottawa community. 

Want to tell us what you think and your concerns about the effects of alcohol? Read our blogs.

  • Want to host a community discussion with Ottawa Public Health (OPH)?
Book a discussion group by emailing
How can our community reduce alcohol problems?

Local actions can help to reduce harms and the burden of alcohol in a community and in specific groups. Ottawa Public Health needs your support to support a healthy community by decreasing alcohol-related harms.

What can we do?

Why should we do that?

What will happen?

Help to reduce the amount of times a child is exposed to alcohol marketing.

  • Limit shows, movies or magazines that use a lot of alcohol advertising.
  • Talk to your child about what is alcohol advertising.
  • Concerned? You can make a compliant here

The more ads we view the greater the influences on our views about alcohol making it seem that everyone is drinking. 

Did you know?

The more times a child views alcohol marketing  the lower the age they will start drinking, and they may drink more than their peers once they start

Reducing exposure of alcohol marketing can delay onset of drinking and reduce excessive drinking by young people.

Limit the number of alcohol outlets in any given area and reduce when and where alcohol is sold.

  • All community members can share opinions about new liquor license applications.
  • Concerned about a particular liquor license?

Alcohol outlet density is the concentration of places where alcohol can be sold in a certain area. Alcohol outlets include bars, restaurants, grocery stores and liquor or beer stores.

Did you know?

Alcohol outlet density is linked to community-based violence and alcohol-related problems especially when bars, night clubs, pool halls and gaming facilities are clustered.

Restricting the density of places where alcohol is sold has a direct effect to lower alcohol consumption which decreases alcohol-related problems. 

Find out more about reducing alcohol-related problems in Canada.

Where can I get help?

If you are concerned about yourself or someone else:

Learn more about building resiliency and how to have THAT talk about mental health

Contact Us