Alcohol Abuse Health Effects: Short Term & Long Term

Alcoholism: Health Effects

Robert Gerchalk

Robert is our health care professional reviewer of this website. He worked for many years in mental health and substance abuse facilities in Florida, as well as in home health (medical and psychiatric), and took care of people with medical and addictions problems at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. He has a nursing and business/technology degrees from The Johns Hopkins University.

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Understanding How Alcohol Abuse Harms Your Health

Even though it’s legal and often viewed as a harmless vice, the reality is that alcohol can lead to a lot of serious health consequences. If you want to take charge of your health, it’s important to educate yourself on the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol.

Short-Term Dangers of Alcohol Abuse

Many people assume that they’re safe from health problems as long as they aren’t drinking a bottle of liquor every day for years. However, the reality is that any level of alcohol abuse can be problematic. Even those who only abuse alcohol occasionally can face many health risks.

Overdose

The most serious short-term danger of alcohol use is overdosing. Even someone who never drinks can end up overdosing after a single binge-drinking session. Alcohol is a depressant, so at very high levels, it can stop your lungs from functioning and your heart from beating. Other symptoms of an overdose include loss of consciousness, severe vomiting, and seizures. An overdose can be deadly. Even if it’s treated in time, you can end up with permanent brain damage due to lack of oxygen or liver damage due to high levels of alcohol exposure.

Increased Risks of Injury

When you consume alcohol, you end up with slow reflexes and impaired coordination. It also impairs your judgment and encourages you to take part in risky behavior. This makes you far more likely to trip, fall, or experience other accidents. Statistics show that 8% of all injuries treated by emergency departments are caused by alcohol. Overconsuming alcohol leads to things like burns, broken bones, sprains, and concussions. 

Dehydration

Alcohol is a diuretic, which means it causes you to urinate more often than normal. In addition to losing more water through urination, alcohol can also cause vomiting and diarrhea that result in further water loss. When individuals are dealing with a hangover the day after binge drinking, they are often quite dehydrated. In some cases, this dehydration can be severe enough to require medical care.

Hypothermia

Many people think that alcohol has a warming effect. However, the reality is that even if you feel warmer, alcohol is making you colder. As you drink more and more alcohol, your core body temperature starts to lower. People who consume alcohol in chilly outdoor settings have a much higher risk of hypothermia. 

Poor Sleep

Alcohol might temporarily make you sleepy, but in the long run, it hurts more than it helps. As the alcohol leaves your system, your body produces hormones associated with wakefulness. This often causes people to wake up repeatedly, making them toss and turn in their sleep. Research shows that those who consume alcohol before bed end up having significantly worse sleep

Long Term Dangers of Alcohol Abuse

If you regularly abuse alcohol for years, health problems become even more severe. In addition to all the short-term dangers of alcohol, you also encounter a whole new spectrum of health dangers. 

Higher Risk of Heart Disease

A lot of people believe that a glass of wine each evening can be good for the heart. However, modern research has repeatedly disproved this belief. Instead, the reality is that regular alcohol consumption actually increases cardiovascular disease risks even at very low doses. Those who regularly abuse alcohol have higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol levels, and a higher risk of developing blood clots. This gives alcoholics a much higher risk of dying from heart disease. 

Liver Damage

Your liver is responsible for processing all the toxins in alcohol. Unfortunately, a liver can only filter out poison and regenerate itself as long as it has time to heal. When you regularly abuse alcohol, your liver never gets a chance to recover. Scar tissue builds up in your liver, which further reduces its filtration abilities and causes even more damage. Eventually, your liver may fail, and if you cannot get a transplant, liver failure is deadly. Liver disease is the leading cause of alcohol-attributed death in the United States. 

Increased Cancer Risks

Whenever alcohol comes into contact with cells in your body, it damages them. This damage can then cause cells to mutate into cancerous cells, so it’s common for people who abuse alcohol to end up with oral, stomach, esophageal, or intestinal cancer. Alcohol can also increase cancer risks by altering hormone levels. Frequently consuming alcohol increases estrogen levels, which then increases people’s risk of developing breast cancer. Just three or four drinks a day can more than triple your risk of developing cancer. The risk of cancer is so high that it’s the third leading cause of alcohol-attributed deaths. 

Poor Immune System Functioning

Another unfortunate reality of alcohol abuse is that it can lead to all sorts of infections and illnesses. Regular alcohol consumption greatly damages your immune system. Not only does it kill off the probiotic bacteria that protect from foodborne illness, but it also lowers the level of white blood cells your body produces. These immune system problems increase the risk of catching colds, influenza, COVID-19, and other illnesses. They also make it a lot harder to heal from injury and fight off infections. People who abuse alcohol take longer to recover from surgery and are more likely to develop infections from minor cuts and scrapes. 

Anemia and Malnutrition

When you’re regularly drinking alcohol, your body has to put a lot of effort into processing the ethanol safely. Unfortunately, while your body is busy doing this, it tends to neglect other types of food metabolism. Chronic alcoholics tend to end up with a lot of nutrition deficiencies. Two of the biggest issues are folate and vitamin B12. Even if you are eating enough of these nutrients, alcoholism keeps your body from absorbing them. The result is anemia, scurvy, and other signs of malnutrition. People may feel quite ill, bleed easily, and get tired after just a few steps. Malnutrition is especially bad in those struggling with severe alcohol use disorder because some people may neglect food and only get calories through drinking. 

Dementia

Alcoholism is bad for brain health. It not only robs the brain of nutrients it needs to function but also directly damages it. Those who drink alcohol in excess have a much smaller brain size than non-drinkers. As they age, the loss of brain matter leads to dementia. In some cases, heavy drinkers might even develop a specific type of dementia called wet brain syndrome. This alcohol-induced illness is characterized by brain lesions, memory loss, and hallucinations. Even if people quit drinking, it can be impossible to reverse the effects of dementia.

Neuropathy

Alcohol can harm your nervous system in multiple ways. Not only does it produce toxins that damage your nerves, but it also causes malnutrition, which keeps your nerves from getting enough B12 to function. If you get enough nerve damage, you can end up with alcoholic neuropathy. Neuropathy is a type of nerve issue that causes burning, tingling pain at random times. In addition to pain, some people also report numbness, weakness, and poor coordination. Alcoholic neuropathy most commonly affects the feet and hands, but in serious cases, it can also make it hard to use your arms and legs as well.

Pancreatitis

Metabolizing alcohol creates some very toxic byproducts in the body. Repeated exposure to these byproducts causes pancreas inflammation, which regulates blood sugar. When this happens, people can end up with a potentially fatal condition called pancreatitis. Alcohol is so bad for the pancreas that roughly a quarter of all pancreatitis cases are due to alcohol consumption. If you develop pancreatitis, you may end up dealing with stomach pain, fluid buildup, unexplained weight loss, and blood sugar issues. 

Mental Health Problems

Though many people drink because they’re dealing with stress or sadness, alcohol only makes it worse. Due to the way it affects hormones in your body, alcohol can result in anxiety disorders and depression. People who drink regularly can end up with very severe mental health problems that make it harder for them to stop drinking. These conditions can continue to cause problems months after you quit drinking.

Kidney Disease

The kidneys and the liver are closely related, so it’s no surprise that alcoholism can lead to kidney damage. When people regularly drink large amounts of alcohol, their kidneys go into overdrive while trying to compensate for liver damage. This ends up harming the kidneys and can eventually lead to kidney failure. Alcohol can also damage the kidneys by causing fluid buildup, high blood pressure, and other issues that contribute to kidney disease. Kidney failure can be fatal without treatment, and it often requires regular dialysis or kidney transplants. 

What’s a Safe Amount of Alcohol to Consume?

If you’re concerned about the health problems caused by alcohol, you might be wondering, “How much is too much?” The answer to this question depends on your goals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people can reduce overdose or liver damage risks by drinking no more than 14 drinks a week for men or seven drinks a week for women. 

However, it’s worth noting that even very mild alcohol consumption still causes problems like elevated cancer risks. The World Health Organization states that there is no safe amount of alcohol consumption. Even just a few drinks every now and then can have negative health consequences.

Are You at Risk for Alcohol-Related Health Problems?

Those who are unable to stay under medically recommended alcohol limits may have an alcohol use disorder. Understanding this condition makes it easier to manage your health.

What Is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

The most basic definition of an alcohol use disorder is that it’s a condition where a person continues to use alcohol despite negative consequences. Some of the signs you may have an issue with alcohol are:

  • You often drink more than you intend to.
  • You have attempted to quit drinking but have failed. 
  • You are neglecting responsibilities because of your alcohol use.
  • You spend a lot of time drinking, recovering from drinking, or thinking about drinking.
  • You are engaging in unsafe behavior while under the influence of alcohol.
  • You have health issues related to alcohol.

How to Safely Quit Drinking

People who have an alcohol use disorder risk damaging their physical, mental, emotional, social, and financial health. However, stopping alcohol abuse can be challenging. Due to the way alcohol impacts your body, regular consumption causes you to become physically dependent on it and become ill without it. 

Because of the dangers of withdrawal, it’s important to seek professional assistance. A hospital or rehab clinic can help you to stay safe while detoxing. After detox, you can seek out a private therapist and support groups or enter a treatment program at a treatment center if you need more structure. Most people benefit from a combination of group therapy and psychotherapy. Alcohol use disorder treatments may include medications like naltrexone or disulfiram that reduce cravings and de-incentivize alcohol use.

Get Help Today

Stopping alcohol abuse is one of the best things you can do for your health. When your body isn’t constantly processing a poisonous substance, it can begin to heal. Those who get sober can reverse liver damage, improve heart health, and more. 

If you would like help with managing your alcohol use, Alcohol Awareness is happy to help. We provide a broad range of resources for people struggling with alcohol use disorders. Our team can answer your questions about alcohol addiction and help you find healthcare professionals or recovery groups in your area. Call 885-955-0771 to get started today.

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