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 disease and death. 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
What Are the Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse?
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 into your bloodstream and circulates through your body.4
Physical Effects of Alcohol at Different Stages of Intoxication
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism outlines the typical effects and risks at various levels of alcohol intoxication. These effects can range from mild to life-threatening depending on the BAC Level.4
BAC of 0.0%-0.05%: Mild Impairment
- Feelings of relaxation and sleepiness
- Mild impairment of balance, coordination, speech, memory, and attention
BAC of 0.06%-0.15%: Moderate to Significant Impairment
- Relaxation and other effects perceived as positive progress to more significant intoxication
- Increasing problems with balance, coordination, speech, memory, and attention
- Notable impairment of reflexes, reaction time, and other skills necessary for safe driving
- Heightened risk of injury (both to oneself and others)
- Increased potential for aggressive behaviors
BAC of 0.16%-0.30%: Severe Impairment
- Significant and even dangerous impairment of speech, attention, coordination, and balance; judgment and decision-making skills; and driving skills and reaction time
- Potential for blackouts or periods of memory loss
- Alcohol poisoning (overdose) possible
- May lose consciousness
BAC of 0.31%-0.45%: Life-Threatening Impairment
- Loss of consciousness
- High risk of alcohol poisoning
- High risk of death due to severe respiratory depression, choking due to suppressed gag reflex, and other critical signs and symptoms of alcohol poisoning
What Are the Symptoms of 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 can be fatal.5 Symptoms of an alcohol overdose include: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 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 Risks of Alcohol Use
Excessive alcohol consumption may lead to alcohol dependence or alcohol poisoning, as indicated above, but the potential 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 risky and “excessive” by the CDC.)
Long-Term Risks of Alcohol Use & Abuse
Chronic, heavy alcohol use is associated with a host of long-term physical health problems including:5–8
- Weakened immune system, increasing the risk of becoming ill.
- High blood pressure (hypertension).
- 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 disorders, such as anxiety and depression, as well as cognitive problems, such as learning issues and memory loss (including dementia).5,6
Common Diseases from Alcohol Abuse
In addition to the potential health risks mentioned above, excessive alcohol use may also lead to serious disease. Common diseases caused by alcohol use and misuse include:
- Cancers of the liver, throat, mouth, breast, colon or esophagus.
- Heart disease.
- Liver disease.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) is a very serious medical condition caused by a lack of adequate thiamine. Alcoholism is commonly linked to poor nutrition, especially a deficiency in Vitamin B1, or thiamine. In fact, up to 80% of alcoholics are thiamine-deficient.6
WKS is a disease that combines two separate conditions, Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s psychosis.6,9
Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a brief but severe condition that 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 is a persistent, debilitating condition that causes significant problems with memory and learning, including:
- Difficulty establishing new memories.
- Trouble 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 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 use or misuse can also lead to alcohol use disorders (AUD).5 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 Alcohol in Moderation Okay?
No amount of alcohol can be considered completely safe.2 However, 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.
Finding 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.
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, we can help you.
At Recovery First, we offer different levels of addiction treatment starting with medical detox, where you can overcome your physical dependence on alcohol in a safe environment under the 24/7 supervision of doctors and nurses.
After detox, we offer both inpatient rehab and various levels of outpatient treatment, as well as an alcohol addiction treatment program, so that you can learn new coping skills and address the thoughts and behaviors that drive addiction.
To learn more about how to stop drinking and restore your health, give us a call at . Our admissions navigators are available around the clock to answer questions about our inpatient alcohol rehab near Miami, Florida. They can also discuss the various ways to pay for rehab, using insurance to pay for rehab, and the rehab admissions process.
Additionally, you can confirm your health insurance coverage by filling out this simple and secure .
Contact us to begin the path to recovery today.