Alcohol is a mood-altering substance used by 80% of Canadians. People consume it in drinks such as beer, wine, spirits and cider. Although it is legal, alcohol does have some health and safety risks.

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About alcohol

Alcohol (also known as booze and other nicknames) is the common name for ethanol or ethyl alcohol. Pure ethanol is a clear, colourless liquid combined with other ingredients to make alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine and spirits.

How alcohol is made

Beer, wine and cider are made through a fermentation process. Fermentation is a natural biological process in which yeast changes sugar into alcohol. It makes drinks with lower alcohol concentration (4% to 15%).

Spirits, such as gin, rum, vodka, and whiskey, are made through distillation. This is an industrial process that makes drinks with higher alcohol concentrations (40% or more).

Alcohol for other purposes

There are two other main types of alcohol, both of which are unsafe to drink:

  • isopropyl alcohol (known as rubbing alcohol)
    • used in sterilization agents, such as hand sanitizer
    • used in everyday cleaning products and cosmetics
  • methyl alcohol (known as methanol or wood alcohol)
    • used as an industrial solvent, antifreeze and fuel for camping stoves

How alcohol works

Alcohol activates the pleasure or reward centres in the brain. It can produce a sense of wellbeing, relaxation, disinhibition, and euphoria.

Alcohol is also a central nervous system depressant. It depresses and slows down brain functions and thought processes. It can also affect other bodily functions such as breathing and heart rate.

Alcohol has the same effect no matter which alcoholic beverage you drink. Exactly how it affects you depends on factors such as:

  • the amount you drink
  • your gender and age
  • your body size
  • how quickly you drink
  • the amount and type of food you have eaten
  • medications you are taking that may interact with alcohol
  • your past experiences with drinking
  • your overall health
  • your mood

Alcohol absorbs into your bloodstream through your mouth, stomach and intestines. Most of your organs and tissues are exposed to the same amount of alcohol as your blood, but your liver is exposed to more.

How long it takes alcohol to affect you varies greatly. It takes longer if you drink it with certain types of foods, such as proteins and fats. It takes much less time if you drink it on an empty stomach.

Alcohol continues to circulate through your body until your liver eliminates it. Some alcohol (10%) exits your body through urine, sweat and breathing.

Standard drink

A standard drink is a measure of how much pure alcohol you are drinking. It varies based on the concentration of alcohol in a beverage.

A glass of beer, a bottle of cider or cooler, a glass of wine and a shot glass of distilled alcohol depicting a standard alcoholic beverage.

In Canada, a standard drink is 17 millilitres or 13.45 grams of pure alcohol. This is the equivalent of:

  • a bottle of beer (12 oz., 341 ml, 5% alcohol)
  • a bottle of cider (12 oz., 341 ml, 5% alcohol)
  • a glass of wine (5 oz., 142 ml, 12% alcohol)
  • a shot glass of spirits (1.5 oz., 43 ml, 40% alcohol)

Canada's low-risk alcohol drinking guidelines

Canada's Low-Risk Alcohol Drinking Guidelines can help you make informed decisions about drinking. The guidelines recommend setting limits to help you avoid the chronic and acute health risks of alcohol use.

Keep in mind:

  • the intention of these guidelines is not to encourage people who abstain (for cultural, spiritual, health or other reasons) to start drinking
  • they are "low-risk" guidelines, not "no-risk" guidelines

The guidelines for consumption limits

  • Women should limit alcohol to:
    • no more than 2 standard drinks per day
    • no more than 10 standard drinks per week
    • no more than 3 standard drinks on special occasions
    • no alcohol on some days
  • Men should limit alcohol to:
    • no more than 3 standard drinks per day
    • no more than 15 standard drinks per week
    • no more than 4 standard drinks on special occasions
    • no alcohol on some days
  • Pregnant women
    • should avoid drinking alcohol
  • Youth, with parental consent, should limit alcohol to:
    • no more than twice weekly
    • no more than 1 or 2 standard drinks each time

Reducing the risk of chronic alcohol-related harms

Chronic risk refers to the harms that happen over the long-term.

To avoid the toxic effects of drinking, you can limit the amount of drinks you have per day and each week.

For women, having up to two standard drinks per day and no more than 10 standard drinks per week with 2 rest days (days where no alcohol is consumed) can help reduce the toxic effects of drinking. For men, the guideline is up to 3 drinks per day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week, with 2 rest days.

Reducing the risk of acute alcohol-related harms

Acute risks refer to the health consequences of drinking too much alcohol over the short-term or on a single occasion (often referred to as binge drinking or heavy drinking).

To avoid binge drinking on a single occasion, it is recommended that women drink not more than 3 drinks in one day and men, no more than 4 drinks in one day.

Short-term health effects

If you drink too much alcohol on a single occasion (often referred to as binge drinking), you may experience these short-term effects:

  • impulsive behaviour
  • impaired attention, concentration and judgement
  • drowsiness
  • aggressiveness and violent behaviour
  • slowed reaction time
  • slurred speech
  • double or blurred vision
  • flushed skin
  • nausea and vomiting
  • frequent urination
  • impaired memory or loss of memory

Severe alcohol intoxication can lead to alcohol poisoning, which can result in:

  • stupor
  • coma
  • respiratory arrest
  • death

Alcohol can also alter the effects of other drugs and substances. Combining alcohol with another drug that depresses the central nervous system can increase the depressant effect on the body. In some cases, the combination is dangerous and potentially fatal.

Long-term health effects

If you frequently drink too much alcohol, you risk some of these long-term effects:

  • damage to organs, including:
    • liver
    • brain
    • heart
    • stomach
  • increased risk of cancer, including:
    • liver
    • breast
    • throat
    • stomach
  • high blood pressure
  • reduced resistance to infection
  • sexual impotence
  • decreased appetite
  • malnourishment and vitamin deficiencies
  • disturbed sleep patterns
  • anxiety and depression, including suicidal depression
  • hormonal irregularities and infertility

Alcohol use in pregnancy

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can seriously harm an unborn baby. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a brain injury that can occur when an unborn baby is exposed to alcohol. It's a lifelong disorder with effects that include physical, mental, behavioural and learning disabilities. These can vary from mild to severe.

FASD is the leading known cause of preventable developmental disability in Canada. The number of people who have FASD is not known in Canada nor anywhere else in the world. This is because FASD is difficult to diagnose and also because it often goes undetected.

However, based on studies conducted between 1985 and 1997, an estimated 1% of Canadians (360,000 people) have FASD. More recent studies from the US and other Western European countries of first grade students estimate that between 2 to 5% have FASD. If you're planning a pregnancy, the best thing to do is to stop drinking alcohol in advance of your pregnancy. If you aren't planning a pregnancy, you can help prevent FASD by properly using:

  • condoms
  • contraceptive pills
  • other contraception

Some pregnancies are not planned, and you may have been drinking alcohol before you knew you were pregnant. Once you find out you're pregnant, it's best to stop drinking alcohol immediately. Every day without alcohol makes a difference. If you're concerned about the risks to the fetus, it's best to seek the advice of a health care provider.

For more information on FASD please refer to:

Alcohol use disorder

People who drink too much may develop a medical condition called alcohol use disorder (AUD). Like other substance use disorders, AUD is a mental health disorder. Diagnosis is made by the presence of specific symptoms or criteria. The severity of the condition (mild, moderate, or severe) depends on how many symptoms you have.

Check if someone you know suffers from alcohol use disorder

The AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test) is a simple and effective method of screening for unhealthy alcohol use, defined as risky or hazardous consumption or any alcohol use disorder.

AUDIT questionnaire

  • In the past year, have you had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?
  • In the past year, have you more than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn't?
  • In the past year, have you spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • In the past year, have you experienced craving - a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • In the past year, have you found that drinking - or being sick from drinking - often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
  • In the past year, have you continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • In the past year, have you given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • In the past year, have you more than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
  • In the past year, have you continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
  • In the past year, have you had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • In the past year, have you found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

If you answer yes to two or more of these questions, you may have reason to be concerned about your drinking. Consider seeking professional help for a formal assessment, and, if necessary, treatment.

For more information on where to get help for problematic alcohol use, please visit the problematic substance resource page.

Trends in alcohol use among Canadians

National surveys have gathered data about the levels of alcohol use among Canadians of various ages. To learn more, visit our Public Health Infobase page.

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