Alcohol: the good, the bad and the ugly

Alcohol is a source of pleasure to many and there is some evidence to suggest that drinking alcohol in light to moderate amounts may have beneficial effects [1]. However, the potential harms of heavy drinking or drinking in situations when it's best to abstain should be the focus as they can result in negative health consequences and high-risk behaviours.

Here, we will have all your questions about alcohol answered.

Kick your legs back, grab a glass of water and you are all set to find out all about alcohol.

What is a standard drink?

A standard alcoholic drink contains 10 grams of alcohol. This roughly equates to:

  • A can (330 ml) of regular beer with 5% alcohol content

  • Half glass* (100 ml) of wine with 15% alcohol content

  • A shot (30 ml) of spirits with 40% alcohol content

*Glass height = 15cm
Those who do decide to drink alcohol should take note of how much you drink, in addition to the percentage of alcohol in a drink.

How much alcohol is too much?

To lower the risk of alcohol-related harm over a lifetime, men should drink no more than two standard drinks per day, and women no more than one standard drink per day.

What is binge drinking?

Consuming 5 or more standard alcoholic drinks (if you are male), or 4 or more standard alcoholic drinks (if you are female), on one occasion is considered as binge drinking [2].

Binge drinking is a form of alcohol abuse.

What is the difference between binge drinking and alcoholism? How would I know if I’m addicted to alcohol?

Binge drinking refers to the heavy consumption of alcohol over a short period of time, and is a form of alcohol abuse. Usually, abuse is the first step of addiction.

Alcoholism is defined by an obsessive need for an alcoholic drink like beer, wine, and other hard liquors. The craving for alcohol is often so great that alcoholics can’t stop themselves from drinking. If someone who suffers from alcoholism does not get his/her drink, he/she will experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, or anxiety. The majority of alcoholics need professional help to stop drinking [3].

What are some of the signs and symptoms of alcohol dependence (or addiction)?

  • Loss of control: the inability to limit one's drinking over time or at any given occasion.

  • Craving: A strong and continuing need to drink.

  • Tolerance: The need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol in order to "feel the buzz" or to "get high."

  • Physical dependence: Withdrawal symptoms when a person stops drinking after a period of heavy drinking. Such symptoms include anxiety, sweating, nausea, and "the shakes."

According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the presence of at least 2 of the following symptoms indicates Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). The severity is defined as:

  • Mild: presence of 2-3 symptoms

  • Moderate: presence of 4 symptoms

  • Severe: presence of 6 or more symptoms

These symptoms are: 
  1. Exceeding intended alcohol consumption in terms of quantity or duration.
  2. Persistent desire to cut down or control alcohol use, with unsuccessful past attempts.
  3. Spending a lot of time obtaining, using or recovering from alcohol.
  4. Wanting to drink so badly that a person cannot think of doing anything else.
  5. Affecting, giving up or reducing important occupational, educational or family activities in favour of alcohol use.
  6. Persistent use of alcohol even though it is causing problems with family and/or friends.
  7. Giving up or reducing social/recreational activities that were important or interesting to the person, in order to drink.
  8. Continued alcohol use despite exacerbating mental or physical conditions (e.g., continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by drinking, or experiencing memory blackout as a result of alcohol use.)
  9. Being involved in risky situations while or after drinking that increases the person's chances of getting hurt (e.g., operate dangerous machinery, drive etc).  
  10. Drinking more than previous episodes to achieve the intended effect or experiencing reduced effectiveness of the usual amount.
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol wear off.

Can people die from drinking too much alcohol?

Yes, they can.

Alcohol poisoning is the most life-threatening consequence of binge drinking. In alcoholic poisoning, the brain, breathing, circulation, etc is affected. It can eventually lead to loss of consciousness and death [5].

People who drink too much are also more likely to be involved in alcohol-related traffic accidents and violent crimes that can lead to death [5].

Are there any groups of people who should not drink at all?

The following groups should abstain from consuming alcohol altogether:

  1. Pregnant women or those trying to conceive.
  2. Alcohol consumption by pregnant women can result in their babies having major and permanent birth defects such as fetal alcohol syndrome. 

  3. People on medication.
  4. Alcohol can interact with many medication, which may lead to increased toxicity, illness or even death. If one drinks when he or she is on medication, the alcohol may affect the intended reaction of the drug in the body. It can cause the drug to either have a diminished effect, or be transformed into a toxic chemical(s) that can harm the body. If you are taking medication, check with your health care provider before you decide to consume alcohol. 

  5. People with medical conditions such as alcohol allergy, asthma, uncontrolled high blood pressure, alcohol addiction, liver disease and stomach ulcers.
  6. They may experience adverse reactions to alcohol consumption. Chronic health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure may also be exacerbated with drinking. Therefore, if you are suffering from a medical condition, seek the advice of your health care provider before you consume any alcohol.

  7. Children and adolescents [2].
  8. Research shows that drinking during adolescence can harm physical and brain development. Drinking alcohol during this time can bring about long-term impacts on learning and memory skills [6] and they may experience long-term adverse effects on their memory, concentration, visuospatial skills, reasoning, planning and goal-directed behaviours. Alcohol consumption during adolescence may also affect brain development, leading to abnormalities. Studies have shown that for each additional year earlier than 21 that an individual began to drink, the greater the odds that he or she would develop alcohol dependence at some point in life.

  9. Individuals who plan to engage in activities that require attention, skill and coordination, such as driving or operating machinery, should not drink before embarking on these activities [9].
  10. Alcohol depresses the function of one's central nervous system and alters his or her perceptions, emotions, movements, vision and hearing. Most people retain some alcohol in their blood for up to two to three hours after just a single drink.

  11. Individuals who are unable to restrict themselves when drinking.
  12. A person who is not alcohol dependent may still be able to limit the amount he or she drinks. But if a person is diagnosed as an alcoholic, it is best that he or she seeks advice from a counsellor or healthcare provider.

Are there types of alcohol that are safer, or less harmful than others, that people can choose if they really have to drink in a social setting?

There are three main types of alcoholic beverages – beer, wine, and hard liquor. However, the amount of alcohol in alcoholic beverages, of even the same kind, may vary.  Drinking beer may not be necessarily safer than drinking hard liquor such as vodka or whiskey as what affects the body and mind is the amount of alcohol, rather than the type of drink consumed. Therefore, what needs to be taken into consideration is both the alcoholic content of the beverage and the amount consumed.  For example, 1 bottle of beer containing 3.5% alcohol has the same alcoholic content as 1 shot of hard liquor containing 40% alcohol

Try a mocktail for a change

Drinks don't have to contain alcohol to be fun and enjoyable. Try these alcohol-free mocktails for a change.

Sunny Day Daiquiri Green Envy Blackcurrant Blush

90 ml orange juice

90 ml carrot juice

Egg white (from 1 egg)

Top up with 5ml grenadine syrup

Blending method

90 ml lime juice

90 ml mango juice

5 ml of green mint syrup

Top up with plain soda


Building method

60 ml blackcurrant cranberry aloe vera juice

90 ml apple aloe vera juice

Top up with 5ml grenadine syrup and soda

Shaking method


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Read these next:


  1. Wannamethee S.G, et al. 1998, Alcohol, coronary heart disease and stroke: an examination of the J-shaped curve, Neuroepidemiology, 17(6); 288-95. Accessed from on 1 Feb 2022.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021, Accessed 1 Feb 2022.
  3. Alcohol Rehab Guide "Alcohol Withdrawal" 2021, Accessed 1 Feb 2022.
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021, "Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison between DSM-4 and DSM-5", Accessed from: on 1 Feb 2022.
  5. National Health Service, "Alcohol Poisoning", 2019. Accessed 1 Feb 2022.
  6. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2021, "Underage Drinking", Accessed from: on 1 Feb 2022.
  7. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, "Early Drinking Linked to Higher Lifetime Alcoholism", 2006. Accessed from: on 1 Feb 2022.
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021, "Alcohol Use During Pregnancy" Accessed 1 Feb 2022.
  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021, "Alcohol Use and Your Health" Accessed 1 Feb 2022.