Measuring alcohol

Tot up your Units - Unit Calculator

Unfortunately you can't just count each drink as a unit of alcohol. The number of units depends on the different strength and size of each drink, so it can vary a lot.
NHS Choices have created a calculator to help you plan a night out, or help you work out how much you drank last night. It's simple to use: just click on the Units Calculator image to open the Unit Calculator.

Many of us enjoy a glass of wine, a pint of beer or our favourite spirit, and it is part of our culture to relax or to celebrate with a drink. More than 90 per cent of men and 86 per cent of women in the UK drink alcohol. In small amounts, it is true that alcohol does our bodies no harm, and there is even some medical evidence that suggests it may be of benefit.

But this positive message has to be balanced against the growing body of evidence that heavy alcohol consumption – including weekend ‘binge’ drinking – can have a damaging effect on both our physical and mental health.

In all its various forms, it must be remembered that alcohol is a depressant drug. A couple of drinks may help people to relax and enjoy themselves, but in larger doses, it can also make many drinkers aggressive and argumentative. Bingeing on large amounts of alcohol at once is not only harmful in the longer term, it can lead to coma and even death.

People can all too easily become dependent on, or addicted to, alcohol, often without realising they have a problem with drinking that may harm them either now or in the future. But heavy drinking is linked to a number of diseases, including cirrhosis of the liver, heart muscle damage and alcoholic dementia, and it also raises blood pressure, leading to an increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease.

In these pages, you’ll find advice on safe levels of drinking and where to find more advice about problem drinking.

How much is too much?

Everyone is different, and alcohol affects us all in slightly different ways, depending on factors such as your weight and how frequently you consume alcohol. As a rule though, women cannot tolerate as much alcohol as men, because they usually weigh less, their bodies contain less water, and they have different metabolisms or body chemistries.

However, medical experts have drawn up useful guidelines on sensible drinking, based on the available evidence to date, to help people keep their alcohol consumption within safe limits.

The recommendations are that men should drink no more than 21 units of alcohol a week, and that women should have no more than 14 units.

To protect against the risks from alcohol, your drinking should also be spread over the week, rather than saved up for the weekend – so men should aim to drink no more than 3 to 4 units a day, and women 2 to 3 units.

It is also important to measure consumption in units of alcohol, rather than the number of drinks, as the volume of alcohol in different drinks varies.

A unit of alcohol is roughly equivalent to:

  • half a pint of beer, cider or lager
  • a 25ml (pub measure) of spirits
  • a small glass of wine (125ml)

‘Binge drinking’ is when a man drinks eight or more units and a woman drinks six or more in one drinking session. There is evidence that drinking a lot in a short space of time may be a lot worse for your health than more frequent drinking of smaller amounts of alcohol.

Further information

If you would like more information about alcohol, or need to contact someone about your drinking or someone else’s, the following sites might help you:

Last Reviewed: 13/06/2011