Newswise — Alcohol use exists on a spectrum, ranging from abstinence to low-risk use, to hazardous use, to abuse. Unhealthy drinking includes the last two categories – risky or hazardous use, and drinking that has become a disorder. Both can be identified by amounts consumed, as well as associated behaviors and consequences. Both comprise a red flag for help or change. This real-world advice will be shared at the 40th annual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA) in Denver June 24-28.

“Most people don’t understand the spectrum of unhealthy alcohol use and are therefore unclear on whether treatment might be needed, or whether self-help or brief counseling might suffice,” said Richard Saitz, chair of the department of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health. “Most people who need help get no help or treatment at all. This gap likely exists because unhealthy alcohol use has not been viewed as a health condition.” Saitz will present this guidance at the RSA meeting on June 27.

Saitz added that it is helpful to think of unhealthy alcohol use as drinking amounts, or under circumstances, that increase risks or lead to health consequences: hazardous drinking is risky to one’s health, whereas an alcohol use disorder (AUD) has already become a health condition. He describes guidelines for when a person’s alcohol consumption has become risky.

“Drinking more than 14 drinks a week on average for men, and seven for women,” explained Saitz, “or more than four drinks on an occasion for men and three for women can substantially increase the risk for health consequences. The weekly amounts increase risks for chronic medical illnesses such as cirrhosis.  The amounts per occasion increase risks for injuries and other acute problems. An AUD exists when heavy drinking persists despite consequences.” The consequences may be problems at work, a disintegrating marriage, or the inability to perform normal, daily tasks. “When it is more severe and persistent, when people have lost control over their use, that is when professional treatment is needed.”

Drinking too much or even out of control is not a sign of weakness, said Saitz. “And for some just knowing how much is too much is enough to help them change. The public can best be served by understanding the concept of unhealthy alcohol use and how it can be addressed. Drinking that leads to either health risks or a health condition can be helped by self-help, brief counseling, behavioral therapies. and medications,” he advised.


Saitz will discuss these recommendations during the RSA 2017 meeting on Tuesday, June 27 at 1:25 during “Everything you ever wanted to know about alcohol treatment but were afraid to ask: A primer for non-clinicians” at the Hyatt Regency Denver.