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a glass of wine

Research has suggested that alcohol may be more harmful if you're living with HIV.

In addition, recent changes to Government guidelines recommend that both men and women should drink no more than 14 units each week.

How much alcohol can I safely drink?

The recommended Government guidelines have recently been changed to say that both men and women should drink no more than 14 units of alcohol per week. Previously the guidelines for men were 21 units per week.

It's best to drink less than the recommended maximum of 14 units per week, but if you do drink as many as this they should be spread out over the week, not saved up for a binge. Binge drinking sessions increase your chances of death from illnesses, injuries or accidents.

The reason for these changes to the guidelines is that research has shown that any amount of alcohol increases your risk of mouth, throat and breast cancer, strokes, heart disease, liver disease as well as brain and nervous system damage.

When the previous guidelines were written in 1995 it was thought that there were some benefits to the heart when drinking small amounts of alcohol. It has now been established that this is only true for women who are aged over 55 and drink five units or less each week.

Does having HIV affect how much I should drink?

Yes. A recent American study called Veterans Aging Cohort Study (VACS) compared male military veterans to find out whether alcohol was worse for people living with HIV. It found that men drinking more than around 13 units per week were at an increased risk of death than HIV negative men. This finding just about matches the UKs new guidelines for safe drinking limits of 14 units per week.

Researchers think the reasons for this may be because blood alcohol levels in people with HIV are higher per unit drunk.

Another VACS study found that people with HIV felt drunk after fewer drinks - particularly people with a detectable viral load.

The study only looked at the effects of alcohol in HIV positive men, but concludes that because we know that a unit of alcohol harms women more than men, the finding will most likely apply to women as well, possibly with an even lower recommended number of units per week.

What counts as one unit?

One unit is equivalent to 8g (or 10ml) of pure alcohol. Here’s how the units add up according to NHS Choices:

  • 1 small glass of wine: 1.5 units
  • 1 standard glass of wine: 2.1 units
  • 1 large glass of wine: 3 units
  • 1 bottle of wine: 10 units
  • 1 pint of weak lager: 2 units
  • 1 pint of stronger lager: 3 units
  • 1 single shot of spirts: 1 unit.

The following make up 14 units:

  • 6 glasses of wine
  • 6 pints of lager
  • 5 pints of cider
  • 14 single shots of spirits.

What about ‘one-off’ drinking?

In a single episode of drinking the advice is to:

  1. limit the amount you drink
  2. drink with food
  3. space out your drinks with water.

Does drinking alcohol affect my HIV treatment?

There are no significant interactions between alcohol and HIV drugs. If drinking makes you vomit within an hour of taking HIV medication, take the dose again.

However, you may forget to take your HIV treatment when under the influence of alcohol and heavy drinking will harm your health. It is advisable to reduce your alcohol consumption to a minimum or, preferably, stop drinking altogether if:

  • You already have a liver disease such as hepatitis. You need a healthy liver for your body to get the benefit of HIV drugs.
  • Your CD4 count is low (ie, you have a weakened immune system) - if you’re not on HIV medication heavy drinking could weaken your immune system further and slow your recovery from infections.
  • You have high levels of fats in your blood (this can be a side-effect of some HIV drugs).

Can I drink while pregnant?

The new guidelines advise anyone who is pregnant or trying to conceive not to drink alcohol.

Previously it was thought that it was safe for pregnant women to have one to two units of alcohol per week.

More about drinking alcohol and your health:



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The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 6/4/2016 by Anna Peters

Date due for the next review: 6/4/2019

Content Author: Kerri Virani

Current Owner: Health promotion

More information:

Alcohol guidelines review – report from the guidelines development group to the UK Chief Medical Officers, Department of Health, January 2016

New alcohol guidelines show increased risk of cancer, Department of Health, January 2016

UK Chief Medical Officers’ Alcohol Guidelines Review - Summary of the proposed new guidelines, Department of Health, January 2016

New Government alcohol unit guidelines, Drinkaware, February 2016

Alcohol units, NHS Choices, April 2015

Moderate alcohol consumption may be more harmful to people with HIV, by Keith Alcorn, NAM Aidsmap, February 2016

Drinking and Alcohol, NHS

Alcohol, Michael Carter, NAM aidsmap, April 2011