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Exploring the Effects of Alcohol: Risks, Health Impacts, and Long-Term Consequences

Group of friends enjoying beer without realizing the effects of alcohol

Published: June 14, 2024

Reviewed by Matthew N. Parker, MD

Many Americans choose to partake in drinking alcohol. However, drinking alcohol has become a key part of many social settings, idealizing alcohol intake and even binge drinking.

Alcohol affects countless areas of health and can become particularly dangerous when abused—for example, short-term threats like alcohol overdose or long-term threats like liver disease.

Read on to learn the ins and outs of alcohol’s impact on our health, both physical and mental, as well as information on overdose and addiction.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Consumption

Even in the short term, drinking alcohol can greatly impact your body and mind. While some of these effects may seem desirable, it’s important to understand the acute threats alcohol consumption can pose if not used responsibly.

When you drink alcohol, the most common short-term effects you’ll feel can include relaxation, impaired judgment, lowered inhibitions, slowed reaction times, slurred speech, clumsiness, and hangovers.

Alcohol increases your body’s production of dopamine and serotonin, which is why there are some desirable effects of drinking. That being said, drinking can quickly take a turn for the worse if not done responsibly.

Binge drinking, or drinking large amounts in short periods of time, can pose the threat of acute alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning occurs when your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) becomes too high and begins to shut down parts of your brain.

Alcohol overdose is a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical treatment. It can have detrimental effects on your health and even be fatal.

Impact on the Liver: Cirrhosis and Liver Disease

It’s widely known that alcohol can impact the liver. Let’s take a closer look at how the two interact and the effects it can have.

In addition to other processes, your liver is responsible for filtering toxins from your blood, including alcohol. When the liver metabolizes alcohol, some of its cells die. They can be regenerated, but with heavy drinking and alcohol abuse, the organ can lose the ability to generate new cells over time.

This can lead to diseases such as:

  • Fatty liver disease: Fatty liver disease is a build-up of fats in the liver due to heavy drinking. It can be reversed but is the first sign of liver disease and suggests that you’re drinking too much. There are usually no symptoms.
  • Alcohol-related hepatitis: Alcohol-related hepatitis occurs as a result of long-term alcohol abuse and can be fatal. Hepatitis is essentially inflammation of the liver. Mild alcoholic hepatitis can be reversed if you abstain from drinking permanently.
  • Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis refers to scarring of the liver caused by long-term damage, in this case from drinking. It cannot be reversed in most cases, but quitting alcohol can prevent further scarring.

Because alcohol-related liver disease typically progresses from fatty liver disease to hepatitis, to cirrhosis, it is vital to catch it early as the first stages can be reversible with proper treatment and lifestyle changes.

Mental Health Effects of Alcohol Use

Though less frequently discussed, the effects of alcohol use on your mental health can be just as detrimental as those on your physical health.

General alcohol consumption can impact your mental health and exacerbate mental health conditions. That being said, alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD) is commonly associated with several mental illnesses, known as co-occurring disorders.

Typically, these include:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Becoming dependent on alcohol can worsen these conditions as your brain may rely on alcohol to function. Additionally, depression and anxiety are common alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

In addition to mental health disorders, there are several other ways drinking alcohol can impact your overall mental well-being.

Because alcohol directly affects your central nervous system (CNS), which is made up of the brain and spinal cord, it affects your brain chemistry and the pathways your brain uses to communicate.

That being said, alcohol can impair your cognitive function and mood regulation in both the short-term and long-term.

Physical Health Problems Associated with Alcohol

There are countless physical health problems commonly associated with alcohol use and abuse. It’s important to be informed of potential health risks related to alcohol consumption as they can cause permanent damage.

In addition to your liver, alcohol consumption can also impact your lungs and respiratory tract, heart, pancreas, and gastrointestinal tract.

Drinking alcohol, especially heavily, can damage your lungs and weaken your immune system. This can make you more susceptible to diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis.

As for the heart, long-term alcohol use can create damage that leads to stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, cardiomyopathy, and arrhythmias.

Alcohol can even affect your pancreas and lead to pancreatitis. The condition causes pain, swelling, and inflammation of the organ. Similarly, alcohol use can cause gastrointestinal disorders like ulcers, gastritis, and heartburn.

Certain cancers are also associated with alcohol use including colorectal cancer, breast cancer, head and neck cancer, liver cancer, and esophagus cancer.

The above risks are much more likely in individuals with substance abuse disorders and alcohol dependence as continued excessive alcohol use exacerbates health problems over time.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

We’ve addressed the short-term effects of alcohol abuse, but it’s essential to be familiar with the long-term effects as well.

Chronic alcohol abuse can cause many negative health impacts, many of which are irreversible and some of which can even be fatal.

A common long-term effect of alcohol misuse is organ damage to the brain, heart, liver, lungs, or pancreas. This can often go hand-in-hand with increased susceptibility to infections. Serious infections can be fatal and harder to fight off due to alcohol’s effect on the immune system.

Long-term abuse can also impact your nervous system and lead to neurological diseases like dementia, alcoholic neuropathy, alcohol withdrawal syndrome, and fetal alcohol syndrome.

Many people who abuse alcohol have a chronically high BAC, which can pose issues in itself. Sustained high BAC increases your risk for organ damage and related health conditions, which can decrease life expectancy greatly.

Risks of Alcohol Poisoning and Overdose

Alcohol poisoning, also known as alcohol overdose, is a very serious condition that occurs when the life-saving parts of your brain start to shut down due to excessively high BAC.

When you drink alcohol, it is metabolized and enters the bloodstream, which is what causes your BAC to rise. Drinking a lot in a short period of time can cause your BAC to rise rapidly. It can rise even after you stop drinking if there is still alcohol in your stomach or intestines.

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down your body’s functions. Therefore, having too much in your bloodstream can slow down brain activity enough to shut down parts of the brain.

Symptoms of alcohol overdose include:

  • Slow heart rate
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Excessive vomiting
  • Lack of gag reflex
  • Unconsciousness
  • Inability to stay awake
  • Hypothermia
  • Blue-tinged skin or pale skin
  • Clammy skin
  • Incontinence
  • Seizures

Without medical intervention, alcohol poisoning can cause coma, respiratory depression, asphyxiation, brain damage, and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly 2,200 people die from alcohol overdose each year.

There are certain risk factors associated with alcohol poisoning that can make individuals more likely to develop the condition. These can include low alcohol tolerance, lower weight, younger age, male sex, being on certain medications, and having certain health conditions.

On the other hand, external factors can also put you at greater risk of overdosing on alcohol. For example, binge drinking, drinking on an empty stomach, and drinking alcoholic beverages with a high alcohol content can also increase your risk.

Understanding Alcohol Dependence and Addiction

One of the biggest threats of alcohol use is the potential to develop alcohol dependence and addiction. It’s important to note that these are two separate conditions, though they are highly correlated. It should also be noted that many clinicians no longer use the term “addiction” due to the stigma associated with the word. Alcohol Use Disorder is a common term used today.

Alcohol dependence refers to a physical reliance on alcohol. In other words, your body cannot function without alcohol in its system. This is what causes withdrawal symptoms which can make it difficult to quit drinking.

It’s not uncommon for alcohol dependence to develop into an addiction, which is the mental reliance on alcohol also called Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). After repeated abuse, the brain can convince the rest of the body that it needs alcohol to get through the day, do certain tasks, be happy, etc.

When you have developed a dependence or AUD and try to stop drinking, you may experience a cycle of effects. Typically, people experience withdrawal symptoms as soon as six to 24 hours after they stop drinking.

Withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Increased heart rate
  • Excessive sweating
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations
  • Delirium
  • Heart palpitations
  • Insomnia
  • High blood pressure
  • Tremors
  • High body temperature
  • Cravings

Over time, people who abuse alcohol also start to build a tolerance to its effects, leading them to drink more for the same experience. This worsens addiction and can increase the likelihood of overdose.

Despite the negative consequences of repeated alcohol abuse, people with alcohol dependence and AUD continue to drink because they feel as though they don’t have a choice.

Both dependence and addiction are medical conditions that can be hard to overcome on your own. Getting comprehensive addiction treatment is the best way to treat alcoholism.

Intervention Strategies and Harm Reduction

Alcohol consumption does not have to be dangerous, it’s possible to drink responsibly. If you notice yourself or a loved one struggling with alcohol use, there are several harm reduction strategies you can use to decrease the risk of overdose and the development of dependence or addiction.

Responsible drinking habits are a great way to reduce the risk of negative effects related to drinking alcohol. Avoid binge drinking by pacing your drinks and sticking to one or fewer alcoholic drinks per hour. Keep in mind a standard drink pour differs between alcohol types.

Here are some general measurements for the amount of alcohol in a standard drink:

  • Beer: 12 fluid ounces
  • Malt liquor: 8-9 fluid ounces
  • Wine: 5 fluid ounces
  • Liquor: 1.5 fluid ounces

You can also practice harm reduction when drinking by avoiding drinking games and avoiding drinking on certain medications. Other helpful strategies include eating before you drink and alternating drinks with water.

You can also look for alcohol education programs in your community to learn more about safe drinking practices and identifying alcohol abuse. Similarly, a step up from an education program can look like a 12-step program. Alcoholics Anonymous has meetings across the country for people with alcohol addiction.

If necessary, you may want to seek out an addiction treatment program. Alcohol rehab is specifically designed to treat alcohol addiction and encourage long-term sobriety. Addiction cannot be cured, but it can be effectively treated.

A comprehensive addiction treatment program will include evidence-based treatment services like behavioral therapy, medication-assisted treatment, group counseling, and more. Addiction rehab has countless benefits including decreased risk of negative health effects, improved mental health and physical health, and even improved relationships and careers.

Find Alcohol Addiction Treatment Centers

Drinking alcohol can impact your physical and mental health greatly. When abused, alcohol can create serious or permanent damage to your organs and overall well-being. However, with proper harm reduction strategies and alcohol abuse treatment for those who need it, the threat of hazardous effects can be greatly reduced.

Ready to take the first step in your treatment journey? Give our number a call to get help today.

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