What Are the Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse?
Alcohol’s potential effects on the body are far-reaching. Per a report from the United States Surgeon General, the misuse of alcohol is linked to many physical health concerns ranging from liver disease to cancer to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Chronic and heavy drinking is also associated with the risk of alcohol use disorders.1
A recent study found that alcohol is a leading risk factor for both death and disease. It also showed that, studies associating low use with protective health effects on the heart and against diabetes in women were outweighed by the overall health risk of alcohol consumption. In other words, no amount of alcohol consumption is healthy, suggesting that health risk increases with every sip.2
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol’s effects will intensify and change as a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises. BAC measures the percent of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. As BAC rises, so does the level of intoxication and the more effects alcohol will have.3
A person’s BAC can continue to increase even after they’ve stopped drinking. This means that even if you’ve cut off your alcohol intake for the time being, you can still become further impaired as the alcohol you’ve consumed moves from your stomach and intestine and enters into your bloodstream and circulates through your body.4
Effects at Different Stages of Alcohol Intoxication
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism outlines the typical effects and risks at various levels of alcohol intoxication. As detailed in the Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose, the impairing effects of alcohol can range from mild to life-threatening depending on the BAC Level. 4
Symptoms of Alcohol Overdose (Alcohol Poisoning)
An alcohol overdose (alcohol poisoning) occurs at high levels of alcohol intoxication and is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention, as it may be fatal.5 Someone experiencing an alcohol overdose may experience:4
- Clammy skin.
- Profound confusion.
- Loss of consciousness.
- Slow breathing (less than 8 breaths a minute) or irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths).
- Slow heart rate.
- Loss of gag reflex necessary to avoid choking in the case of vomit.
- Low body temperature, or hypothermia.
- Bluish or very pale skin color.
Combining alcohol with other drugs that depress the central nervous system, such as opioid prescription painkillers (e.g., oxycodone), heroin, or benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax) increases the risk of overdose by intensifying each substance’s individual effects. These drugs compound the effect alcohol has on areas of the brain that are responsible for life-sustaining functions such as breathing. The combination of these types of drugs with even a moderate amount of alcohol may result in overdose.4
Other Short-Term Physical Health Risks
Excessive alcohol consumption may lead to alcohol dependence or alcohol poisoning, as indicated above, but the short-term risks extend beyond overdose.5 The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that drinking to excess can lead to:5
- Motor vehicle crashes and other potentially fatal injuries ( falls, drownings, burns, etc.).
- Physical or sexual assault, suicide, or domestic violence.
- Sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancy resulting from risky sexual behaviors.
- Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. (NOTE: Any use of alcohol during pregnancy is considered “excessive” by the CDC due to the risks.)
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Chronic, heavy alcohol use can cause a host of physical health problems, including the following:5,6,7,8
- Weakened immune system, increasing the risk of becoming ill.
- Cancers of the liver, throat, mouth, breast, colon or esophagus.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- Heart disease.
- Liver disease.
- Problems with digestion.
- Nutritional deficiencies.
- Brain and nerve damage.
- Reproductive problems in both women and men.
Alcohol’s effects aren’t limited to physical health problems; chronic, heavy drinking is also associated with mental health disturbances such as anxiety and depression as well as cognitive problems such as learning issues and memory problems (including dementia).5,6
Alcoholism is commonly linked to poor nutrition and especially a deficiency in Vitamin B1, or thiamine. In fact, up to 80% of alcoholics are thiamine-deficient. A lack of adequate thiamine may lead to the development of a very serious medical condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS).6
WKS is a disease that combines two separate conditions:6,9
- Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This brief but severe condition may cause:
- Vision problems, which may include paralysis of one or both eyes, uncontrolled eye movement, double vision, or vision loss.
- Mental confusion.
- Problems with muscle coordination/impaired ability to walk.
- Korsakoff’s psychosis. This persistent, debilitating condition causes significant problems with memory and learning, including difficulty establishing new memories and recalling previous memories in their brain. For example, an individual with Korsakoff’s psychosis may have a detailed conversation but forget it almost immediately.
In the early stages of WKS, administration of thiamine may help to address deficits in brain function; however, approximately 80% of patients are untreated and their condition proceeds to Korsakoff’s psychosis.6,10 For more advanced cases of WKS, especially those where Korsakoff’s psychosis is already present, thiamine may be insufficient to address severe brain damage, and treatment may center around supportive care for the patient.6
Alcohol Use Disorders
Prolonged alcohol abuse can also lead to alcohol use disorders.5 While not a physical health problem, an AUD is commonly associated with many physical and mental health issues and can cause major distress in most or all areas of a person’s life.
People who suffer from AUD will often continue to drink despite worsening health problems.11 Treatment for alcoholism can work,12 and the person’s health may improve significantly after a period of sobriety.
Is Drinking in Moderation Healthy?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking but also states that if a person has not started drinking, they should refrain from doing so.13 No amount of alcohol can be considered completely safe.2
If you are going to drink, drinking in moderation can reduce your risk of negative physical health outcomes.13 Moderate drinking is defined by the Dietary Guidelines as:13
- Women: Up to 1 alcoholic drink per day.
- Men: Up to 2 alcoholic drinks per day.
Help for Alcoholism
Alcoholism is characterized by a compulsive need to continue drinking despite the known physical, social, or other harms caused by alcohol.11 When an alcohol use disorder has developed, it’s very difficult to get sober without some form of professional help. And, in some cases, it can very dangerous to attempt to stop drinking alone. The alcohol withdrawal syndrome can be life-threatening for some individuals, and it’s very difficult to predict with certainty who will suffer very severe withdrawal symptoms such as seizures or delirium tremens (DTs).15 If you’re concerned about your alcohol use and your health, we can help you.
At Recovery First, we offer a full range of treatment starting with medical detoxification where you can overcome your physical dependence on alcohol in a safe environment where doctors and nurses can monitor you 24/7. After detox, we offer both inpatient rehab and various levels of outpatient treatment so that you can learn new coping skills that don’t involve drinking.
To learn more about how to stop drinking and restore your health, give us a call at . We are here to talk you through your options 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of the Surgeon General, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health. Washington, DC: HHS, November 2016.
- Griswold, M., et. al. (2018). Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990–2016: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016. The Lancet, 392(10152), P1015-1035.
- Stanford University Office of Alcohol Policy and Education. (n.d.). What Is BAC?
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Alcohol Use and Your Health.
- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. (2004). Alcohol Alert.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Men’s Health.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Excessive Alcohol Use and Risks to Women’s Health.
- Akhouri S, Kuhn J, Newton EJ. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. [Updated 2020 Jun 30]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-.
- Sinha, et. al. (2019). Wernicke Encephalopathy—Clinical Pearls. Concise Review for Clinicians, 94(6), 1065–1072.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Effective Treatment.
- Health.gov. (n.d.). Dietary Guidelines 2015 – 2020, Appendix 9. Alcohol.
- Zupan Zorana, Evans Alexandra, Couturier Dominique-Laurent, Marteau Theresa M. (2017). Wine glass size in England from 1700 to 2017: a measure of our time. BMJ, 359 :j5623.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment. Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 45. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 15-4131. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, 2006.