Dry January: thousands admitted to hospital last year with an alcohol related condition
Alcohol poisoning, liver cancer, heart disease, tremors — alcohol misuse can cause a myriad of health problems.
Exacerbated by the lockdown and the Christmas period, many of us will be guilty of drinking a bit more than normal too.
Now with Covid-19 putting an unprecedented strain upon hospitals, health experts are urging drinkers to cut back on the booze this year and reduce the risks to their health and well being.
When drinking becomes a problem
Analysis by the JPIMedia Data Unit reveals every region in England saw a rise in the number of alcohol related hospital admissions between 2014/15 and 2018/19.
Figures from Public Health England show there were over 350,000 hospital admissions in 2018/19 — the equivalent of nearly 7,000 every week.
Despite tougher restrictions on alcohol sales, including minimum pricing, hospitals in Scotland are also treating thousands of patients with alcohol related conditions.
The latest figures from Public Health Scotland show over 23,000 patients were admitted to hospital with an alcohol related condition in 2019/20. That number has remained relatively stable over the last five years.
In Northern Ireland there were more than 2,500 hospital admissions with an alcohol related condition in 2019/20. There has been a 4.1% drop in the number of admissions since 2015/16.
Why you should cut back on booze
Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of the charity Alcohol Change UK, said hospital admissions related to alcohol “continue to remain far too high”.
“Many of us are finding ourselves drinking more heavily and more often than we would like as we try to cope with the many challenges thrown up this year by Covid-19 and it’s vital that those of us who need specialist support can easily access it,” he said.
“For some of us, taking an extended break from drinking, like having a Dry January can be a good way to reset our relationship with alcohol, particularly if our drinking has been creeping up.”
Rosanna O’Connor, director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at Public Health England added that cutting down on drinking can reduce health risks.
Ms O’Connor said: “About 10 million people in England are drinking in ways that increase the risks and many are looking to cut down. Setting yourself a target of having more drink-free days every week is an easy way to drink less and reduce the risks to your health.”
A spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Department of Health added that alcohol related harm costs over £900 million each year.
“There are differences in alcohol related hospital admissions across the Health and Social Care Trusts, and this can be related to levels of deprivation in these areas along with other risk factors,” they said.
“However, alcohol related harm is a factor right across Northern Ireland.
“Addressing this issue is a key priority for the Department of Health, and the Department is currently leading on a consultation on a new substance use strategy for Northern Ireland.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson acknowledged that Scotland experiences high levels of alcohol related harm and that the level of the minimum unit pricing at 50 pence per unit continues to remain under review.
Case study: John Nelson
“I was drinking four bottles of wine a day,” says recovering alcoholic, John Nelson.
“As soon as I woke up I would have a drink — I normally had a glass of wine by my bedside.”
Like so many, John had always enjoyed a drink “since his teenage years” but his drinking took a serious turn when he tragically and suddenly lost his wife. He went from being a heavy drinker to being alcohol dependent.
Now 60-years-old, the ex-civil servant has been sober since 2012 but the road to sobriety has not been without its challenges.
There is no stereotypical alcoholic. For John, it wasn’t even something his friends were aware of.
“I wasn’t necessarily reclusive and drinking at home. I still met friends,” the Sheffield resident says.
“Friends were amazed when they found out I was an alcoholic. They said I was never drunk when they saw me and that’s because I was under the influence of alcohol all the time. I didn’t need to drink loads of booze when I was out with my friends because I had all day to do that.”
Early retirement also allowed more drinking time.
Heavy drinking and still processing the loss of his wife, John’s health was deteriorating.
“I feared for my health,” he said.
'Everything would be alright'
“I then had a moment of clarity. I realised if I stopped drinking everything would be alright and my life would be better. That is important because for people who are drinking dependably, they fear what life would be like without alcohol. Often most of your friends are drinkers and you wonder what your relationships will be like and what sort of friendships you’ll have. And what you’ll be like as a person.”
After making the decision to quit, John stopped suddenly and without any help – which he now warns is the wrong thing to do.
Going ‘cold turkey’ can be very dangerous for heavy drinkers. It can result in mild to life-threatening withdrawal symptoms such as heart attacks, seizures and even death.
After feeling unwell, John ended up in A&E.
“They gave me something to see me through the night, to help with the withdrawal, and told me to start drinking the next day again because you can’t just stop drinking. They also put me in the direction of the NHS alcohol support service in Sheffield.
“They said to me that I needed an inhouse detox and to go into hospital for a detox.
“After a few months (on the waiting list) I went into hospital for a week of detox. That was on the 20th December 2012 and I haven’t drank any alcohol since.”
This dedicated support would turn out to be vital for John as it provided essential psychological support to aid his recovery.
“The crucial thing they did was that they also got me one to one counselling. As well as talking about my alcohol issues I also spoke about my grief and trauma issues. I had had bereavement counselling but at my one to one counselling they talked about all my issues and treated me as a whole person and I found that really helpful."
'Don't be afraid to reach out'
Eight years later, John now works as a legacy support worker for the We Are With You charity. He helps deliver workshops to front line staff working with people with alcohol issues.
But for those living with similar addiction issues taking the first step to getting help is often the hardest part.
“A lot of people are worried, especially if they are isolated when they are drinking. They are worried people will judge them and they will feel shame and stigma. Especially older people,” John says.
“Don’t be afraid to reach out. There are people out there willing to help and people willing to listen sympathetically and work to find a solution. Don’t be afraid to ring our helpline. We will try and find a solution that works for you.”
If you are concerned about the drug or alcohol use of yourself or someone you know you can talk to a trained advisor via We Are With You's online webchat service via www.wearewithyou.org.uk.
We Are With You also runs a helpline specifically for people over 50 who are concerned about their alcohol use. For free support and advice please call 08088010750.