Although legal, overindulging in alcoholic beverages can come with some very serious consequences. In fact, the long-term effects of alcohol can be fatal for some. In 2017 alone a recorded 22,246 people died from alcoholic liver disease and 35,823 more passed away in alcohol-induced deaths. Another 10,874 deaths from alcohol-impaired auto accidents occurred in the same year. And these numbers don’t even include the numerous alcohol-related murders and other accidental deaths. It is clear that drinking–especially binge drinking and long-term heavy drinking can have some serious and deadly consequences.
Click below to learn more about short- and long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the mind and body.
Short-term effects of drinking
Drinking is a common social activity that many enjoy responsibly. However, drinking too much—even occasionally—can be detrimental to a person’s health, safety, and to those around them. Overindulging may result in serious damage, accidents, poisoning and death. Even short-term excessive drinking can have real, long-term consequences for a person’s life.
What is excessive drinking?
Consuming alcohol while pregnant, binge drinking, drinking underage, and heavy drinking are all considered forms of excessive drinking. Unfortunately, excessive drinkers are more likely to experience negative consequences as a result of their behavior.
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 15 or more drinks a week constitutes heavy drinking in men, and 8 or more drinks a week is considered heavy drinking in women.
Binge drinking, on the other hand, occurs when a person’s Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) rises above 0.08 g/dl. For men, this means drinking approximately 5 or more drinks in under two hours. For women, four drinks and above in the same time frame is considered binge drinking. Some people are both heavy drinkers and binge drinkers.
Binge drinking on its own is not the same as alcoholism. However, many people with alcoholism do binge drink. Moreover, it is definitely considered to be a form of alcohol abuse. Binge drinking is quite common in the United States, especially among 18 to 34 year olds: One in six adults are reported to binge drink around four times a month.
The long-term consequences of excessive drinking in the short-term
Drinking heavily inhibits a person’s ability to think clearly and make reasoned decisions. In large amounts, alcohol has a depressant effect on the system. At first, a person may feel energized, elated, and free from inhibition.
However, as a person drinks more, they begin to feel groggy, slur speech, have memory loss and trouble with balance. Excessive drinking, even on occasion, can have immediate, life-altering consequences.
As mentioned, there are a number of risks in the short term associated with excessive drinking. These include:
- Impaired driving and car accidents, many times fatal
- Violence and aggressive behavior
- Drownings, burns, falls and other accidents
- Lowered inhibitions and poor decision-making
- Alcohol poisoning
- Risky sexual behaviors that can result in the spread of STDs and unintended pregnancies
- Fetal alcohol syndrome
What are the long-term effects of alcohol on the body?
While in the short-term there are a number of risks associated with excessive drinking, the behavior can cause even more damage to the body over time. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse and alcoholism don’t just affect one part of the body. Continued excessive drinking causes harm to many key organs. The cumulative effects can result in numerous physical issues and diseases.
Most commonly associated with alcohol abuse is the liver. In fact, as far as 200 years back, the link between excessive drinking and the liver was recognized. It is clear that the long-term effects of alcohol abuse can be especially damaging to this key organ. Liver disease common among many chronic heavy drinkers.
The liver metabolizes alcohol, using enzymes to break it down and clear it from the bloodstream. Generally the liver can process about one ounce of liquor per hour. This is about the same as one standard drink. When a person consumes more than that, alcohol accumulates in the blood and body tissue. This can cause a number of harms.
Clearly, the liver is essential to processing alcohol. Unfortunately, it can suffer a great deal of damage as a result of long-term excessive drinking. Alcohol-induced liver issues include:
- Fatty liver damage: This occurs in almost all heavy drinkers and even in some after a binge drinking session. Luckily, this can be reversible if proper steps are taken.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: This potentially fatal condition is characterized by inflammation and damage to the liver tissue. A process called fibrosis occurs, in which healthy tissue is replaced by scar tissue. Symptoms and signs include fever, pain in the abdomen region and jaundice. About half of heavy drinkers experience alcoholic hepatitis. Although potentially fatal, this disorder can be reversed with abstinence, one reason why seeking treatment can be lifesaving.
- Alcoholic Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is the most advanced form of liver damage that can result from drinking. The condition appears in approximately 15 to 30 percent of heavy drinkers. Fibroids form and cause blood vessels to stiffen, distorting the liver’s internal structure and resulting in severe liver impairment. The functional impairment can cause complications in other key organs like the brain and kidney. This disease is usually fatal and many die as a result of complications (kidney failure and hypertension).Treatment may be needed to manage symptoms. However, abstinence from drinking beer, wine, liquor or other spirits can help stabilize the condition in some.
Drinking heavily over a longer period can also damage the pancreas. The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach. It helps with the food digestion process by releasing digestive enzymes into the small intestine. Additionally, the pancreas releases insulin and glucagon into the bloodstream. This helps the body manage how it uses food for energy.
However, heavy drinking can damage the pancreas, causing long-lasting inflammation. This long-term effect of alcohol abuse is otherwise known as chronic pancreatitis. Symptoms include an elevated heart rate, fever, nausea, vomiting, a swollen belly and pain in the upper belly–especially after eating foods high in fat. Those with chronic pancreatitis may experience constant and debilitating pain running from the stomach through the back. They may also have diarrhea, an upset stomach and lose weight..
Chronic pancreatitis usually requires medical treatment. Several other health complications may arise as a result of the condition. These include infection of the pancreas, diabetes, kidney failure, pancreatic cancer, malnutrition and problems breathing, among others.
You may have heard that moderate drinking is good for the heart. And it is true that for a select few,–one drink a day for women and two for men–it can protect from heart disease. However, doctors are unsure if these benefits are related to alcohol itself or to the healthier lifestyle light drinkers may lead. So before you run and grab that six pack, take a closer look at the long-term effects of alcohol on the heart.
Regular alcohol use can raise your blood pressure and even lead to diseases like cardiomyopathy. Too much alcohol can increase triglyceride levels, or fats in blood. The American Heart Association reports that increased triglyceride levels may elevate the risk of a heart attack or stroke in people with high or low cholesterol. Other heart issues associated with excessive drinking include high blood pressure, cardiac arrhythmia, and prematurely aged arteries.
Drinking alcohol irritates the stomach and makes it produce more acid than normal. One may experience painful effects following an instance of heavy drinking. Overdrinking causes stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea and gastritis, and even bleeding in heavier drinkers. In fact, an episode of binge drinking can cause a person to aspirate vomit into their lungs, which can be fatal.
There are several long term effects of alcohol abuse on the stomach. For instance, long-term alcohol use is associated with an increased risk of stomach cancer. Others may experience acid reflux or even develop peptic ulcers, a painful sore in the stomach lining.
As mentioned, long-term alcohol abuse has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer. Cancer of the oral cavity, larynx, esophagus, pharynx and ovaries were most strongly associated with alcohol consumption. Drinking was also found to increase the risk of stomach, colon, rectum, liver, breast and ovarian cancer.
Sex Organs and Fertility
Excessive drinking can impact a person’s sex drive, sex organs and their ability to procreate. Heavy drinking has been shown to cause problems with sex and fertility. Long-term effects of alcohol abuse include a lowered libido and lowered testosterone. Low testosterone in men may affect sperm production and reduce fertility; Men’s sex organs can also shrink and women who are heavy drinkers can even stop ovulating.
Long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the mind
Alcohol has a number of negative impacts on the brain as well as on mental health. When consumed, alcohol slows messaging between the brain and key organs. This results in slurred speech, blurred vision, memory loss, blackouts and slowed reaction times. However, these are only short-term effects. The ong term-effects of alcoholism can be quite detrimental to the brain.
Brain damage caused by alcohol abuse
Long-term drinking can have some serious effects on a person’s brain. Brain shrinkage has been found to be more prevalent among alcoholics. In fact, studies show that the brains of severe alcoholics are smaller and lighter than those of non-alcoholics. Brain shrinkage can be associated with learning challenges, memory problems, and issues with coordination. Other brain abnormalities have also been found. Alcoholism can also inhibit the formation of new brain cells. Some of these effects may be reversed with extended periods of abstinence.
Heavy drinking over a long period of time can cause permanent damage and even changes to the brain. As many as 80 percent of alcoholics have thiamine deficiencies, which can lead to serious brain disorders. Some with this deficiency may go on to develop Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This syndrome can present as Wernicke’s encephalopathy. This is a short-term, but severe, condition. Symptoms include mental confusion, issues with muscle coordination and paralysis of the nerves that move our eyes. It may also appear as Korasakoff’s psychosis, a long-lasting condition. Patients can experience debilitating difficulties, including severe learning, memory and coordination problems. While some may benefit from thiamine injections, more serious cases may not be apt for treatment. Severe cases may even require custodial care.
Long-term effects of alcoholism on mental health
Alcohol abuse is associated with a number of other mental health disorders. Alcohol’s effects may temporarily improve a person’s mood, causing them to feel buzzed and free of inhibitions. As a result, some people use beer, wine or liquor to self medicate and avoid life’s issues. This can result in alcoholism in the long term. Substance abuse issues may also be more common for people with mental health disorders.
Additionally, Alcoholism can contribute to or worsen some mental health disorders, such as depression. Many alcoholics experience issues of anxiety and depression. Dual diagnosis may be common among those with an alcohol use disorder. In fact, over 30 percent of those diagnosed with major depression also have a drinking problem. Those already experiencing depression are more likely to drink heavily, and vice versa. Negative consequences from drinking can also exacerbate many mental health issues, causing additional problems.
Other problems caused by alcohol in the long-term
The long-term effects of alcoholism are not limited to physical ailments. In addition to its impacts on physical health, alcohol can cause a number of other issues in a person’s life. These include issues with relationships, parenting, employment, and financial problems.
Family and relationships
Relationships and family life can suffer as a result of addiction and alcoholism. Romantic partners of heavy drinkers may be concerned about the wellbeing of their loved one. They may also suffer the consequences of their partner’s heavy drinking, being put in uncomfortable situations, having to make excuses for inappropriate behavior, and paying for damages resulting from episodes of drunkenness. There is also a strong link between alcoholism and domestic violence.
Many alcoholics will isolate themselves from others who do not support their drinking. This includes friends and family members who want them to quit. Children growing up with heavy drinkers as parents or caretakers especially suffer. Because their alcoholic parent is preoccupied with drinking, they may be forced to take care of themselves from a young age. Many times they experience neglect, abuse, and long-term psychological and relational damage.
Moreover, altercations are more likely to occur when a person is drunk. The drinking itself may be the cause of conflict or a person may be more likely to behave without inhibition when intoxicated. Unfortunately, alcoholism can take a heavy toll on relationships.
School, work and other responsibilities
Many alcoholics find themselves prioritizing their need to drink over meeting life’s commitments. Heavy drinkers may find it difficult to keep up with school, work and other responsibilities. This might mean frequent absences, receiving warnings for intoxication or bad behavior, and an overall lowered performance. The home life may suffer as well. Heavy drinking can interfere with parental responsibilities, paying bills and other household duties.
Many alcoholics have difficulty keeping a job. Heavy drinkers may miss work to go on a bender or call in sick because of a hangover. In the long term, this can affect a person’s employability. As a result, many alcoholics face financial difficulties which are further amplified by the expense of a drinking habit.
What is alcohol dependence?
Unfortunately, long-term heavy drinking can cause physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. If a person stops drinking, they may experience a number of negative symptoms that cause them to want to drink to feel better, despite the overall negative consequences.
The body has become accustomed to operating with the substance in it. When taken away, a person may experience physical symptoms as the alcohol leaves the body. This is called withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms include insomnia, mood swings, shakes, and tremens. In order to relieve these symptoms, people who are dependent–or who have an alcohol use disorder–will drink.
Over time, many drinkers also find themselves increasing the amount of alcohol they consume. Their body builds up a tolerance to the original dose and requires more drinks to produce pleasurable effects. Tolerance causes many to continually increase the number of drinks they consume in a sitting or opt for stronger beverages. In other words, you previously may have felt a buzz from a couple of beers or glasses of wine. Now you need several drinks to get the same feeling. Tolerance is key in developing dependency. It encourages people to increase their regular and overall alcohol intake.
Alcohol dependant people may exhibit some or all of the following symptoms:
- Increased tolerance
- Withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
- Compulsion to drink despite negative impacts on one’s life
- Drinking increased amounts despite efforts to cut down
- Drinking to relieve symptoms of a hangover or withdrawal
Dependance and alcohol use disorders can be especially difficult to deal with alone and may require professional help. In-patient and out-patient treatment programs have allowed many to achieve sobriety. It is important to note, that if a person is highly dependent on alcohol, they may require medically-assisted detox. For people with heavy physical dependence, going cold turkey without professional supervision can be dangerous or even downright deadly.
Seeking treatment for alcoholism
It’s clear that there that the harmful long-term impacts of alcohol are numerous. If you believe that you have an alcohol use disorder, seeking treatment may help you avoid a number of negative health and life consequences.
Sobriety can reverse or limit some physical damages caused by drinking. It can also prevent bad decision-making and other destructive behaviors. Moreover, untreated alcohol use disorders tend to worsen. They may result in death by accident or from complications. For these reasons, going to rehab can be an effective solution to avoid the negative and fatal long-term effects of alcohol abuse.
Accredited, evidence-based treatment centers can help one confront their addiction as well as the emotional issues that come with it. Becoming sober involves more than quitting drinking. Usually, there are a number of co-occurring mental health issues, relational traumas, and other difficulties that may have contributed to a person’s addiction. These issues likely need to be addressed.
Liberty Ranch Drug and Treatment Facilities take a comprehensive approach to battling addiction, offering therapy, family counseling, medication management, life skills training and other services. The program and support provided can help alcoholics achieve sobriety while learning new coping skills and healthier behaviors.
If you are concerned with the long-term effects of alcohol and believe that you or a loved one may have a drinking problem, contact Liberty Ranch to learn more about our personalized treatment programs.