The safest option is: don’t drink any alcohol if you plan to drive. There’s no foolproof way of knowing how much you can drink and still drive safely, or of drinking and staying below the legal limit.
What’s the legal limit?
In the UK, the legal limit is 80mg of alcohol for every 100ml of blood in your body. As a rough guide, this means:
men should drink no more than four units of alcohol before driving, and
women should drink no more than three units of alcohol before driving.
However, it's impossible to be sure you’re safe, because many factors affect how your body breaks down alcohol. For more information, see How long does alcohol stay in your blood?
Just one drink could push you over the legal limit, even if you feel unaffected.
On average, it takes about one hour for your body to break down one unit of alcohol. However, this can vary, depending on:
whether you’re male or female,
how quickly or slowly your body turns food into energy (your metabolism),
your stress levels,
how much food you have eaten,
the type and strength of the alcohol, and
whether you’re taking medication and, if so, what type.
It can also take longer if your liver isn’t working normally.
How much is one unit?
One unit of alcohol is roughly equivalent to:
half a pint of beer, or
a 25ml (pub) measure of spirit.
A small (125ml) glass of wine is equivalent to about 1.5 units. A 275ml bottle of alcopop is about 1.4 units. A 5% alcohol-strength pint of beer is 2.8 units.
Adding up your units
If you drink a large (250ml) glass of wine, your body takes about three hours to break down the alcohol.
If you drink one pint of beer, your body takes about two hours to break it down. One pint of strong lager is equivalent to three units, so this will take longer.
If you have a few drinks during a night out, it can take many hours for the alcohol to leave your body. The alcohol could still be in your blood during the next day.
After drinking alcohol
It's very important to remember how long it takes your body to break down alcohol, e.g. before you drive or operate machinery or equipment.
Even if you feel fine the day after drinking, you could still be over the limit. The legal limit in Malta is 80mg of alcohol for every 100ml of blood in your body.
If you get drunk, you should avoid alcohol for 48 hours, to give your body time to recover.
Know your units
Avoid putting your health at risk by drinking alcohol sensibly.
If you’re a woman, you shouldn’t drink more than:
2-3 units a day, or
14 units a week.
If you’re a man, you shouldn’t drink more than
3-4 units a day, or
21 units a week.
Effects of alcohol on driving
Any amount of alcohol affects your judgment and your ability to drive safely. You may not notice the effects but even a small amount of alcohol can:
reduce your co-ordination,
slow down your reactions,
reduce your field of vision, and
affect how you judge speed, distance and risk.
Alcohol can also make you over-confident. You're likely to take risks, creating dangerous situations for other people, as well as yourself.
How long do the effects last?
Alcohol takes time to leave your body. For example:
If you drink at lunchtime, you may be unfit to drive in the evening.
If you drink in the evening, you may be unfit to drive the next morning.
There’s no quick way of sobering up. It’s a myth that drinking coffee or a cold shower can help you sober up. Time is the only thing that gets alcohol out of your body. You could still be over the legal limit or unfit to drive many hours after drinking.
If you’re going to drink alcohol, plan another way to get home. You could book a taxi, use public transport, or arrange a lift with someone who’s not drinking. Why not take turns with your friends or family to be the designated driver? Or you could arrange beforehand to stay overnight with a friend.
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What is a Unit?
We measure the alcohol content of a drink in units. For instance, a pint of typical-strength bitter contains just over two units, while a glass of wine can contain anything from around 1.5 to over three, depending on the size and strength.
One UK unit is 10ml or eight grams of pure alcohol (also called ethanol).
You can calculate the units in a drink by multiplying the amount in millilitres (ml) by the strength (ABV) and dividing the result by 1000. There's a unit for every percentage point of ABV in a litre: e.g. a litre of a typical whisky (37.5 ABV) will contain 37.5 units.
Current medical evidence shows that men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day and women not more than two to three. "Regularly" means drinking every day or most days of the week. Consistently drinking more than these amounts can risk damaging your health, with the danger increasing the longer you continue and the more you drink.
If you want to get an idea of how many units you're drinking, we've created an easy-to-use calculator to help you work it out: you can find it above.
Did you know?
There are around 10 million people drinking above the Government's recommended limits.
Between 15,000 and 20,000 premature deaths in England and Wales each year are associated with alcohol misuse.
Alcohol can be fattening. If you were to add three or four gin and tonics to your usual daily diet, you could put on 2Kgs over four weeks.
Children learn their behaviour largely from their parents, so how you drink may affect how they drink too, both now and in the future.
Advice for When You Have a Drink
For many people, having a drink or two is often an important part of socialising and most of us enjoy a drink when we're relaxing or having fun. Nobody's saying that we should all cut out drinking, but it is important to have the facts about how alcohol can affect your health, relationships and career. So then you'll be able to decide how much you want to drink.
When you're drinking at home you can get a false sense of security. You still need to think about your units - and consider the following:
Don't mix alcohol with any kind of medication as it can reduce the drug's effects and be harmful
Don't mix alcohol with recreational drugs, especially stimulants (such as ecstasy or cocaine)
If you are drinking wine, try using a smaller glass: a small glass of wine (ABV 12%) is about 1.5 units but a large glass of stronger wine can contain three units or more;
It may be best not to drink if you have mental health problems like depression - it could make these worse
How your units build up
"First drink of the evening: I always have a glass of white wine..."
Have something to eat before your first drink.
"My other half's home - time to top up my wine glass too!"
Replace your second drink with a soft drink.
"Normally I'll wash down my dinner with a beer or two."
Make it a half pint.
"If there's still some wine left in the bottle, I'll usually polish it off."
A bottle of wine may contain more than 10 units. If you finish it off you'll exceed the limit for healthy drinking.
"...time for a nightcap. I fancy a shot of whisky."
A soft or hot drink is a much healthier choice.
It is recommended that:
Men should not regularly drink more than three to four units of alcohol per day;
Women should not regularly drink more than two to three units of alcohol per day.
You should also take a break for 48 hours after a heavy session to let your body recover.
Pregnant women or women trying to conceive should avoid drinking alcohol. If they do choose to drink, to protect the baby, they should not drink more than 1-2 units of alcohol once or twice a week and should not get drunk.
If you're getting ready for a big night, we've put together some tips worth remembering before you start a drinking session. They could stop you getting a nasty hangover - or even save your life.
Make it easy on yourself
Eat before you go out, or early in the evening, to reduce the effects of your drinking
Remember, it's not about saving up your units for the week and cramming them all into one evening
Drink water regularly during the evening and before you go to bed
Take a break if you think the drink is hitting you too quickly
Pace yourself with soft drinks - a tonic looks the same with or without vodka
Don't try to keep up with friends who drink more than you - that's their choice
Don't mix alcohol with drugs of any kind, but especially ecstasy or cocaine: it can be deadly
If you're on medication, ask your doctor if it's safe to drink
After a session of heavy drinking take a break for 48 hours to let your body recover
Dangers to be aware of
The more you drink, the more at risk you are of becoming involved in a fight or unsafe sex, or being targeted by criminals.
You might not be out of control but you can't control how other people behave when they're drunk. Half of all violent crimes are alcohol-related - and young men are particularly vulnerable to violent attacks by others who've been drinking.
Can you be sure you'll use a condom? Unsafe sex can lead to unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia, herpes or gonorrhoea.
Plan how you're going to get home before you set off. If you're drunk you're more likely to decide to get an unlicensed minicab or walk home alone and if you're a woman, situations like these can put you at risk of sexual assault.
Both women and men could have their drinks spiked. Keep your drink with you. Agree with your friends to watch out for each other and to support each other if one of you suddenly seems unusually drunk or is acting strangely. Drinks can be spiked with more alcohol too.
If you're so drunk that you're dizzy or falling over, you could do yourself a serious injury. Most common of all is people falling over and breaking limbs, but at the other end of the spectrum, a very serious fall could have bigger consequences.
If a friend loses consciousness after drinking:
Call 112 and ask for an ambulance
Lie them on their side with their top leg bent towards their chest (recovery position)
Make sure they're breathing and their mouth and airways are clear
Keep them warm (but not hot) with blankets or a coat
If someone vomits:
Try to keep them sitting up
If they must lie down, make sure they're in the recovery position
If they begin to choke, call 112 and ask for an ambulance
Tips for avoiding trouble
At the start of an evening, plan how you'll get home - take phone numbers for taxis and keep enough money to pay for the journey home or agree who will drive and not drink
Don't accept drinks from strangers
Don't leave your drink unattended
Don't get into an unlicensed cab or a stranger's car - for women especially there's an increased risk of sexual assault
Don't get into a car with a driver who you know has been drinking or taking drugs
Don't leave your friends to go off with someone you don't know
Avoid walking home on your own or through dark or unsafe areas if you've been drinking
Avoid aggressive drinkers - just walk away if someone seems to be getting too rowdy
Carry a condom - if you have sex, make sure it's safe
Did you know...?
Darker drinks give you worse hangovers - there are chemicals in their dark colourings called congeners. Mostly found in red wine, brandy and whisky, congeners irritate blood vessels and tissue in the brain.
Drinking water before you go to bed will help reduce your level of dehydration (which might mean less of a hangover), but it won't make you any less drunk, or protect your liver from the damaging effect of alcohol.
Four or five single vodkas in one evening might make you feel happy and uninhibited - but it will also push you over your daily limit and could harm your health if you drink regularly at these levels.
The cost of alcohol-related crime is estimated to be as much as £7.3 billion per year. 1.2 million violent incidents (around half of all violent crimes) and 360,000 incidents of domestic violence being linked to alcohol.
If you are driving with the legal limit for alcohol in your blood, you are more than twice as likely to have an accident than if you had not been drinking. The risk is up to five times greater if you're a less experienced driver.
Everyone who drinks too much knows the unpleasant flip side of a night on the tiles – the dreaded hangover.
That horrible morning-after feeling can range in strength and intensity and vary from person to person, but it usually involves a banging headache, sickness, dizziness, dehydration, mild diarrhoea, tiredness and weakness.
A hangover can also leave you struggling to concentrate, irritable and sensitive to light for a prolonged period after your last drink – not a good combination if you want to enjoy the next day and not spend it suffering in bed.
So, what causes a hangover and how can it be treated?
The principal cause is ethanol – the alcohol in your drinks. It is a toxic chemical that works in the body as a diuretic, causing the headache, dry mouth, dizziness and constant nausea. Your hangover eases as the body turns the ethanol into a less toxic chemical. The other factor that affects a hangover is the type of drink you have been downing. Dark drinks tend to make hangovers worse. So does mixing drinks.
What precautions can you take to prevent a hangover?
The Government recommends that men should not regularly drink more than three to four units a day, and women not more than two to three. Units can be complicated to understand, so arm yourself with knowledge before you go out and find out how many units are in your chosen tipple. It may be more than you realise – a large glass of wine, for instance, contains around three units. Follow these guidelines to kick hangovers into touch:
Keep well within the Government’s recommended limits. That’s the best way to avoid a hangover altogether.
Try not to drink on an empty stomach; eat something – preferably carbohydrates - before you start drinking. The food will help slow the body’s absorbtion of the alcohol.
Avoid dark coloured drinks if possible. They contain natural chemicals (congeners) that can worsen the hangover.
Drink plenty of water or soft drinks in between alcoholic drinks.
What can you do to treat the symptoms?
Drink as much water as you can before hitting the sack and keep more by the bed to slurp if you wake in the night.
Take a painkiller – a soluble one in water is best.
Take an antacid to settle your stomach.
Remember alcohol is a depressant. A tea or coffee may give you a slight temporary lift, but they may also dehydrate you further, so keep up with the water to counteract this.
Go for a gentle stroll if you feel able and get some fresh air and light on the face.
Avoid hair of the dog – you might think it helps but all you’re doing is easing the alcohol withdrawal and delaying the problem.
Get plenty of rest and relaxation and stay away from booze for at least 24 hours after a heavy session.
MYTH: Alcohol gives you energy, it's a stimulant TRUTH: Alcohol is a depressant that affects the central nervous system, and can actually make you sleepy. Although the initial effects may seem stimulating, cumulatively it slows down the way you think, speak, move and react.
MYTH: Beer before liquor, never been sicker / liquor before beer, you're in the clear TRUTH: This urban legend just isn't true. Your blood alcohol content is what determines how drunk you are. It doesn't matter what type of alcohol you choose - a drink is a drink, and too much of any combination can make you sick.
MYTH: I can sober up quickly if I need to, with a cold shower/fresh air/hot coffee TRUTH: Taking a shower, drinking 10 cups of coffee or eating a loaf of bread will not make you sober. Only time will remove alcohol from your system; depending on your weight, it takes about one hour to eliminate one unit of alcohol.
MYTH: Drink drivers can be safe, because they drive extra carefully so they don't get pulled over TRUTH: In 2002, alcohol was involved in 41% of all fatal crashes (NIDA). You might think you're in control, but alcohol slows down reaction time, which makes driving a car much tricker than you think - even if you've only had one drink.
MYTH: Alcohol makes sex better TRUTH: Alcohol can make people feel less uncomfortable in a social situation. But it can keep men from getting or keeping an erection, and it can lower women's sex drives too. More importantly, alcohol can affect your decision-making ability: you might put yourself in a risky situation and think you're ready to have sex when you're not or you might not use a condom, putting you at greater risk of a sexually transmitted disease or an unwanted pregnancy.
MYTH: The worst thing that can happen if I drink too much is getting my stomach pumped TRUTH: Alcohol poisoning can cause death. Also, if you're drunk and unconscious, you could inhale fluids from your vomit, resulting in death by asphyxiation. Long-term, heavy use of alcohol can lead to addiction (alcoholism), and can even cause a heart attack or stroke.
MYTH: Beer gets you less drunk than other drinks TRUTH: A pint of typical-strength beer (ABV 5%), a glass of wine (250ml, ABV 11%) or a large double vodka (70ml) and coke (ABV 38-40%) are all equally intoxicating, at around 2.8 units of alcohol. It's the alcohol itself, not the type of drink it's found in, that makes you drunk although the faster you drink and absorb the alcohol, the higher your peak blood level.
MYTH: Switching between beer, wine, and spirits will make you more drunk TRUTH: Mixing types of drinks may make you sicker by upsetting your stomach, but not more intoxicated.
MYTH: Eating a big meal, or 'coating' your stomach, before you drink will keep you sober TRUTH: Drinking on a full stomach, or coating your stomach with a greasy or milky solution (like drinking milk before you go out) will only delay the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, not prevent it. However, it is best to eat a proper meal before a night out, especially foods rich in carbohydrates and proteins.
MYTH: Your body develops a tolerance to alcohol if you drink a lot regularly, so you can safely drink more TRUTH: The more you drink the more damage your body will sustain and the greater the risks become. Tolerance is actually a warning sign that your body has started to be affected by alcohol.