Harm Reduction Strategies for Alcohol

Alcohol is one of the most regularly used substances in the United States. It can have serious health consequences, particularly when it comes to regular drinking. It can increase the risk of several kinds of cancer, including breast and colon cancer. It also can contribute to heart problems like high blood pressure.  You may wish that your loved one not drink at all, but if they do use alcohol, occasionally or frequently, here are some strategies you can share with them to reduce the risks associated with use.

Moderation strategies

Many people who drink may not have an interest in stopping completely but might be willing to cut back. There are moderation management guidelines and support groups that may be useful.  Generally, it includes being very specific about how much and how often one drinks such as only in a social setting or only on certain days of the week.

Eat and drink water

Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Eating prior to consuming alcohol and drinking water in between alcoholic drinks can help prevent blackouts and alcohol poisoning.

Nurse drinks

Taking small sips of a beverage is safer than downing it quickly. Often people will binge drink, having 4-5 drinks in a very short period of time.  This can lead to poor decision making, like engaging in fights or making embarrassing social media posts, as well as blackouts and alcohol poisoning, which can put people in dangerous situations.

Measure and count drinks

A drink is considered 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol. For example, half of a bottle of wine is 2.5 drinks while the typical Cosmo would be considered 2 drinks because of the vodka and Cointreau in it.  It can help to measure and count drinks to understand how much one is consuming.


There are medications available to help your loved one reduce their drinking. These include Campral (acamprosate), Disulfiram and Vivitrol (naltrexone). These block the “buzz” caused by alcohol, which can make someone want to drink less. Medications for alcohol use disorder are considered to be part of a complete treatment plan and can be very effective.

Avoid mixing with other substances

Mixing alcohol with other substances can be extremely harmful, causing serious illness and even death. It can lead to overdose and cause a person to become more intoxicated. Also, you should check with your healthcare provider about any medications your loved one is taking to see what the impacts might be if consumed with alcohol.

Consume drinks with less alcohol

It’s always a good idea to have drinks with a lower alcohol content. For example, consider drinking a light beer or alternating alcoholic drinks with mocktails.

Arrange safe transportation

Driving under the influence is extremely dangerous, and it’s important to have a plan in place if you know you will be drinking and traveling. Have a designated driver – someone in your group who stays sober and can bring you home safely – or plan to call a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft (it can be helpful to schedule it in advance). If you live in an area where public transportation is an option, make sure to check its schedules and try not to travel alone.

Abstinence days

There are times throughout the year that have been popularized for abstinence, such as “Dry January” or “Sober October.” Taking some time off of drinking is always healthy, and can help you reevaluate your relationship with alcohol. Try doing it with a buddy.

Know what to do in case of alcohol poisoning

Alcohol poisoning happens when a large quantity of alcohol is consumed in a short period of time, and can be very dangerous, even deadly. Signs to watch out for include:

In the event of alcohol poisoning, call 911 and get medical attention immediately. Do not leave the person alone, and make sure they are rolled onto their side or sitting up so they do not choke on their vomit. Things that do NOT help include putting the person in a cold shower, giving them coffee or letting them sleep it off.

Use breast milk test strips

It’s best not to drink while breastfeeding. However, if you want to have an occasional drink, use breast milk test strips. These usually work by being submerged or dipped in breast milk for a few minutes and changing color to indicate any alcohol present. These are easy to purchase from online retailers like Amazon.

Limit or do not have alcohol in your home

If you are concerned about your loved one’s drinking, it may be best not to have alcohol in the home.  Some families will bring it in for a special occasion, dumping what’s left at the end of the night or asking others to take it home.

Remember that reducing alcohol use, no matter by how much, is always a step toward better health.