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Alcohol use

Last updated: July 2024

Alcohol has both immediate and long-term effects on your body, including an increased risk of injuries and chronic diseases. The less you drink, the lower your risk. Different factors put some people more at risk than others. Learn about Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health to help you make informed choices about alcohol use.

Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health

If you choose to drink alcohol, it’s important to know about its effects as well as risks, like injuries and chronic diseases. Canada’s Guidance on Alcohol and Health advises that the more alcohol you drink per week, the more you increase your health risk. For example:

  • Not drinking at all has benefits, such as better health, and better sleep
  • Drinking 2 standard drinks or less per week will likely help you avoid alcohol-related consequences for yourself or others
  • Consuming more than 2 standard drinks per occasion is associated with an increased risk of harms to yourself and others, including injuries and violence
  • 3 to 6 standard drinks per week increases your risk of developing several types of cancer, including breast and colon cancer
  • 7 standard drinks or more per week significantly increases your risk of heart disease or stroke

A standard drink means:

  • Beer: 341 mL (12 oz) of 5% alcohol
  • Cooler, cider, ready-to-drink: 341 mL (12 oz) of 5% alcohol
  • Wine: 142 mL (5 oz) of wine of 12% alcohol
  • Spirits such as whisky, vodka, gin and others: 43 mL (1.5 oz) of 40% alcohol

To learn more, visit Drinking Less is Better, Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (PDF, 739 KB).

When zero alcohol is the safest choice

There are many situations where no alcohol is the safest option:

  • When pregnant or trying to get pregnant. Drinking alcohol during this time puts your baby at risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). To learn more, visit Alcohol and drug use during pregnancy
  • While breastfeeding
  • Driving a motor vehicle. Learn about the laws that regulate alcohol, drugs and driving
  • Using machinery and tools
  • Taking medicine or other drugs that interact with alcohol
  • Doing any kind of dangerous physical activity
  • Being responsible for the safety of others
  • Making important decisions

How alcohol affects the body

The alcohol you drink moves into the bloodstream from the stomach and small intestine. The amount of alcohol in the blood is called Blood Alcohol Content (BAC). The higher your blood alcohol level, the greater the slow-down effect on your brain and other parts of the central nervous system.

Alcohol is largely metabolized (broken down into carbon dioxide and water) by the liver for removal by the lungs and urine. When all the alcohol is processed and eliminated from the body, BAC returns to zero.

Your BAC and intoxication level can be influenced by many factors:

Quantity consumed

The more alcohol you consume, the higher your BAC.


Speed of consumption

The faster your rate of alcohol consumption, the higher your BAC.


Food and absorption

Food in the stomach slows down the rate of absorption of alcohol. This means BAC rises more gradually in a body with a full stomach than in a body with an empty stomach.


Body size

Larger bodies have more water than smaller bodies to dilute alcohol. This means that a smaller body will have a higher BAC than a larger body consuming the same amount of alcohol.


Sex and gender

Alcohol use and risk are influenced by both sex and gender in many ways. Alcohol affects female and male bodies differently. The way a female processes alcohol means intoxication happens faster and damage can occur from lesser amounts of alcohol. Some reasons a woman will have a higher BAC than a man after drinking the same amount include:

  • Women's bodies have less water - 50% compared to 60% for men
  • Women have smaller livers and less of the dehydrogenase enzyme involved in metabolizing or breaking down alcohol
  • Women's hormonal cycles (and some forms of birth control) impact metabolism rates

Gendered social and cultural factors also contribute to differing impacts of alcohol use on women, men, and gender and sexual minorities in different ways. Learn more about how sex and gender relate to alcohol use (PDF, 2.6 MB).



People tend to lose lean body mass as they age, resulting in more body fat and less water in the body to dilute alcohol. Older bodies also process alcohol less effectively, putting an extra burden on the liver and producing a higher BAC.



The liver metabolizes alcohol at a fairly fixed rate of about 0.016% BAC every hour for men, a lesser amount for women.



Despite common beliefs that coffee, cold showers or exercise can sober you up more quickly, time is the only thing that can bring BAC back to zero.


How blood alcohol content is measured

BAC is usually given as a percentage showing how much alcohol (measured in milligrams) is in a 100 mL of blood. For example, a BAC of 0.08% is 80 mg of alcohol for every 100 mL of blood.

One way to measure BAC is through breathalyzer instruments, like those used by police to prevent people from driving impaired. In British Columbia, the legal drinking limit for operating a motor vehicle is a BAC of 0.05%- anything higher can result in penalties under provincial laws.

Use BAC tables or online calculators to see what your BAC levels might be while drinking. These tools aren’t 100% accurate but provide a rough guide to understand how having multiple drinks over time affects BAC.

Alcohol and young people

It’s safest to for young people to delay drinking for as long as possible. Learn how alcohol affects young people differently and how to reduce risks.

Alcohol and aging

As you get older, your body processes alcohol more slowly. Older adults may have different risks associated with drinking. Learn more about alcohol and aging.

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