Alcohol can affect the body in so many ways that researchers have a hard time determining exactly what the consequences are from drinking. Heavy drinking is associated with earlier death. However, it is not just from a higher risk of the more common serious health problems, such as heart attack, heart failure, diabetes, lung disease, or stroke. Chronic alcohol consumption leads to many problems that can increase the risk for death:
- People who drink regularly have a higher rate of death from injury or violence.
- Alcohol overdose can lead to death. This is a particular danger for adolescents who may want to impress their friends with their ability to drink alcohol but cannot yet gauge its effects. However, alcohol overdose doesn’t only occur from any one heavy drinking incident, but may also occur from a constant infusion of alcohol in the bloodstream.
- Severe withdrawal and delirium tremens. Delirium tremens occurs in about 5% of alcoholics. It includes progressively severe withdrawal symptoms and altered mental states. In some cases, it can be fatal.
- Frequent, heavy alcohol use directly harms many areas in the body and produce dangerous health conditions (liver damage, pancreatitis, anemia, upper gastrointestinal bleeding, nerve damage, and erectile dysfunction).
- Alcohol abusers who need surgery have an increased risk of postoperative complications, including infections, bleeding, insufficient heart and lung functions, and problems with wound healing. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms after surgery may impose further stress on the patient and hinder recuperation.
THE EFFECTS OF HANGOVER
Although not traditionally thought of as a medical problem, hangovers have significant consequences that include changes in liver function, hormonal balance, and mental functioning and an increased risk for depression and cardiac events. Hangovers can impair job performance, increasing the risk for mistakes and accidents. Hangovers are generally more common in light-to-moderate drinkers than heavy and chronic drinkers, suggesting that binge drinking can be as threatening as chronic drinking. Any man who drinks more than five drinks or any woman who has more than three drinks at one time is at risk for a hangover.
ACCIDENTS, SUICIDE, AND MURDER
Alcohol plays a large role in accidents, suicide, and crime:
- Alcohol plays a major role in more than half of all automobile fatalities.
- Alcohol-related automobile accidents are the leading causes of death in young people.
- Fewer than two drinks can impair the ability to drive. Even one drink may double the risk of injury, and more than four drinks increases the risk by 11 times.
- Alcoholism is the primary diagnosis in a quarter of all people who commit suicide.
- Alcohol is implicated in over half of all murders.
Alcoholic households are less cohesive and have more conflicts, and their members are less independent and expressive than households with nonalcoholic or recovering alcoholic parents. Domestic violence is a common consequence of alcohol abuse.
Effect on Women. A serious risk factor for injury from domestic violence may be a history of alcohol abuse in the male partner.
Effect on Children. Alcoholism in parents also increases the risk for violent behavior and abuse toward children. Children of alcoholics tend to do worse academically than others, have a higher incidence of depression, anxiety, and stress and lower self-esteem than their peers. In addition to their own inherited risk for later alcoholism, many children of alcoholics have serious coping problems that may last their entire life.
Adult children of alcoholic parents are at higher risk for divorce and for psychiatric symptoms. One study concluded that the only events with greater psychological impact on children are sexual and physical abuse.
INCREASED RISK FOR OTHER ADDICTIONS
Researchers are finding common genetic factors in alcohol and nicotine addiction, which may explain, in part, why alcoholics are often smokers. Alcoholics who smoke compound their health problems. In fact, some studies indicate that people who are alcohol-dependent and smoke are more likely to die of smoking-related illnesses than alcohol-related conditions. Abuse of other drugs is also common among alcoholics.
Alcoholic Hepatitis and Cirrhosis. Alcohol is absorbed in the small intestine and passes directly into the liver, where it becomes the preferred energy source. The liver is particularly endangered by alcoholism. In the liver, alcohol converts to toxic chemicals, notably acetaldehyde, which trigger the production of immune factors called cytokines. In large amounts, these factors cause inflammation and tissue injury.
Even moderate alcohol intake can produce pain in the upper right quarter of the abdomen — a possible symptom of liver involvement. In many cases, such symptoms may be an indication of fatty liver or alcohol hepatitis, which are reversible liver conditions.
Between 10 – 20% of people who drink heavily (five or more drinks a day) develop cirrhosis, a progressive and irreversible scarring of the liver that can eventually be fatal. Alcoholic cirrhosis (also sometimes referred to as portal, Laennec’s, nutritional, or micronodular cirrhosis) is the primary cause of cirrhosis in the U.S.
Not eating when drinking and consuming a variety of alcoholic beverages increase the risk for liver damage. Obesity also increases the risk for all stages of liver disease.
Hepatitis B and C. People with alcoholism may have lifestyles that put them at higher risk for hepatitis B and C. Chronic forms of viral hepatitis pose risks for cirrhosis and liver cancer, and alcoholism significantly increases these risks. People with alcoholism should be immunized against hepatitis B. There is no vaccine for hepatitis C.
Alcoholism can cause many problems in the gastrointestinal tract. Violent vomiting can produce tears in the junction between the stomach and esophagus. It increases the risk for ulcers, particularly in people taking the painkillers known as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen. It can also lead to swollen veins in the esophagus, (called varices), and to inflammation of the esophagus (esophagitis) and bleeding.
Alcohol can contribute to serious acute and chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis) in people who are susceptible to this condition. There is some evidence of a higher risk for pancreatic cancer in people with alcoholism, although this higher risk may occur only in people who are also smokers.
EFFECT ON HEART DISEASE AND STROKE
Moderate amounts (one to two drinks a day) of alcohol can improve some heart disease risk factors, such as increasing HDL (“good cholesterol”) levels. However, at this time there is no definitive proof that moderate drinking improves overall health, and the American Heart Association does not recommend drinking alcoholic beverages solely to reduce cardiovascular risk.
Excessive drinking clearly has negative effects on heart health. Alcohol is a toxin that damages the heart muscle. In fact, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death for alcoholics. Alcohol abuse increases levels of triglycerides (unhealthy fats) and increases the risks for high blood pressure, heart failure, and stroke. In addition, the extra calories in alcohol can contribute to obesity, a major risk factor for many heart problems.
Alcohol abuse and dependence may increase the risk for certain type of cancers. In particular, heavy alcohol use appears to increase the risks for mouth, throat, esophageal, gastrointestinal, liver, and colorectal, cancers. Even moderate drinking can increase the risk of breast cancer. Although the additional risk is small, women who are at high risk for breast cancer should consider not drinking at all.
EFFECTS ON THE LUNGS
Pneumonia. Over time, chronic alcoholism can cause severe reductions in white blood cells, which increase the risk for community-acquired pneumonia (pneumonia acquired outside of hospitals or nursing homes). When patients are inebriated they are also at risk for aspiration of mucus from the airways, causing pneumonia. Patients who abuse alcoholism have a greater risk for developing severe pneumonia. Doctors recommend that patients with alcohol dependence receive an annual pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination. The initial signs of pneumococcal pneumonia are high fever, cough, and stabbing chest pains. Immediately contact your doctor if you experience these symptoms.
SKIN, MUSCLE, AND BONE DISORDERS
Severe alcoholism is associated with osteoporosis (loss of bone density), muscular deterioration, skin sores, and itching. Alcohol-dependent women seem to face a higher risk than men for damage to muscles, including muscles of the heart, from the toxic effects of alcohol.
EFFECTS ON REPRODUCTION AND FETAL DEVELOPMENT
Sexual Function and Fertility. Alcoholism increases levels of the female hormone estrogen and reduces levels of the male hormone testosterone, factors that possibly contribute to erectile dysfunction and enlarged breasts in men, and infertility in women. Such changes may also be responsible for the higher risks for absent periods and abnormal uterine bleeding in women with alcoholism.
Drinking During Pregnancy and Effects on the Infant. Even moderate amounts of alcohol can have damaging effects on the developing fetus, including low birth weight and an increased risk for miscarriage. High amounts can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition that can cause mental and growth retardation. Although there is no specific amount of alcohol intake, the risk of developing the syndrome is increased depending on the time of alcohol exposure during pregnancy, a pattern of drinking (four or more drinks per occasion), and how often alcohol consumption occurs.
EFFECT ON WEIGHT AND DIABETES
Moderate alcohol consumption may help protect the hearts of adults with type 2 diabetes. Heavy drinking, however, is associated with obesity, which is a risk factor for this form of diabetes. In addition, alcohol can cause hypoglycemia, a drop in blood sugar, which is especially dangerous for people with diabetes who are taking insulin. Intoxicated diabetics may not be able to recognize symptoms of hypoglycemia.
EFFECT ON CENTRAL AND PERIPHERAL NERVOUS SYSTEM AND MENTAL FUNCTIONING
Drinking too much alcohol can cause immediate mild neurologic problems in anyone, including insomnia and headache. Long-term alcohol use can physically affect the brain. Depending on length and severity of alcohol abuse, neurologic damage may not be permanent, and abstinence nearly always leads to eventual recovery of normal mental function.
Effect on Mental Functioning. Recent high alcohol use (within the last 3 months) is associated with some loss of verbal memory and slower reaction times. Over time, chronic alcohol abuse can impair so-called “executive functions,” which include problem solving, mental flexibility, short-term memory, and attention. These problems are usually mild to moderate and can last for weeks or even years after a person quits drinking. In fact, such persistent problems in judgment are possibly one reason for the difficulty in quitting. Alcoholic patients who have co-existing psychiatric or neurologic problems are at particular risk for mental confusion and depression.
VITAMIN AND MINERAL DEFICIENCIES
People with alcoholism should be sure to take vitamin and mineral supplements. Even apparently well-nourished people with alcoholism may be deficient in important nutrients. Deficiencies in vitamin B pose particular health risks in people with alcoholism. Other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, however, can also cause widespread health problems.
Folate Deficiencies. Alcohol interferes with the metabolism of folate, a very important B vitamin, called folic acid when used as a supplement. Folate deficiencies can cause severe anemia. Deficiencies during pregnancy can lead to birth defects in the infant.
Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is a serious consequence of severe thiamin (vitamin B1) deficiency in alcoholism. Symptoms of this syndrome include severe loss of balance, confusion, and memory loss. Eventually, it can result in permanent brain damage and death. Once the syndrome develops, oral supplements have no effect, and only adequate and rapid intravenous vitamin B1 can treat this serious condition.
Peripheral Neuropathy. Vitamin B12 deficiencies can also lead to peripheral neuropathy, a condition that causes pain, tingling, and other abnormal sensations in the arms and legs.
The effects of many medications are strengthened by alcohol, while others are inhibited. Of particular importance is alcohol’s reinforcing effect on anti-anxiety drugs, sedatives, antidepressants, and antipsychotic medications.
Alcohol also interacts with many drugs used by people with diabetes. It interferes with drugs that prevent seizures or blood clotting. It increases the risk for gastrointestinal bleeding in people taking aspirin or other nonsteroidal inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) including ibuprofen and naproxen.
Chronic alcohol abusers have a particularly high risk for adverse side effects from consuming alcohol while taking certain antibiotics. These side effects include flushing, headache, nausea, and vomiting. In other words, taking almost any medication should preclude drinking alcohol.