For some women, alcohol is an occasional indulgence – a glass of wine with dinner, a cocktail at a special event. For other women, drinking is a much more frequent and dangerous activity. Thirteen percent of women in the US consume more than seven drinks per week, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 8 women and 1 in 5 high school girls report binge drinking.
This April, for Alcohol Awareness Month, help educate your patients about the importance of drinking in moderation. At-risk drinking can lead to many health consequences beyond liver diseases, including decreased fertility, menstrual disorders, higher rates of injuries, and an increased risk of many cancers. Alcohol also impacts judgement, leading to risky sexual behavior and making sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies more likely. And consuming any alcohol during pregnancy increases the risk for birth defects called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. According to the CDC, excessive alcohol use causes about 23,000 deaths among women and girls in the US each year.
The NIAAA defines at-risk drinking for women as consuming more than seven drinks in one week, or more than three drinks in one occasion (about 2 hours). One drink is measured as 12 oz. of beer, 1.5 oz. of hard liquor, or 5 oz. of wine. However, wine and beer can be served in much larger amounts, and some cocktails can have two or three times as much hard liquor. Women may consume more than the recommended amounts without being aware of it. And there is no safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy.
It’s also important for women to understand that alcohol affects them differently than it does men. Women have less water in their bodies and generally weigh less than men, meaning women who drink the same amount as men will usually have a higher blood alcohol concentration. Men are also able to break down alcohol more easily. “Keeping pace” with men while drinking will have a much greater impact on women than men. ACOG’s patient FAQ has more information.
Ob-gyns have an important role to play in encouraging healthy drinking behaviors in women. ACOG recommends universal screening for alcohol use at yearly well-women visits, as well as during a first trimester prenatal visit. ACOG has additional resources including a tool-kit for providers. Screening patients for at-risk alcohol use and providing education and referrals for treatment as needed can help women address an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.