Physical Impact of Alcohol Abuse

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Alcohol abuse is a leading risk factor of disease burden globally.1 In 2019, about 14.5 million people 12 years or older suffered from an alcohol use disorder. That same year, it was estimated that 414,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 had an alcohol use disorder.2

In the United States, the average per capita consumption of alcohol was 2.35 gallons in 2016.3 As of 2021, Nevada has the third-highest average per capita alcohol consumption rate, at 3.46 gallons.4

Alcohol’s effects on the human body are vast, affecting nearly every organ system. Alcohol also stimulates the reward pathways in the brain, activating sensations of pleasure and satisfaction while also acting as a pain killer; these effects can predispose people to develop an addiction. It is important to understand the effects alcohol abuse can have on the body and how you can get help for alcohol addiction.

Intoxication and Impairment

Depending on the amount of alcohol ingested, a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) will increase, and the person may experience an array of symptoms that range from mild to more severe, to even life threatening.5 A person will be legally drunk in the state of Nevada at a BAC of 0.08%.

Mild symptoms of alcohol intoxication with a BAC of 0.05% include:

  • Increased talkativeness.
  • Feelings of relaxation.
  • Altered perceptions.
  • Mild impairment in tasks requiring dexterity.

As the BAC level increases to greater than 0.10%, but less than 0.39%, people can develop more symptoms, such as:

  • Impaired judgment, which can lead to risky behaviors.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Problems with coordination.
  • Changes in mood, personality, and behaviors.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Forgetting the night’s events.

Severe acute alcohol intoxication can be seen when BAC reaches 0.40% or greater and can lead to the following:

Long-Term Health Concerns

Over time, excessive alcohol use can lead to the development of serious and life-threatening chronic diseases. In addition to the health concerns detailed below, alcohol damages the following organs:

  • Kidneys. When alcohol is ingested, it is metabolized in the liver by a series of enzymes from acetaldehyde to acetic acid, which is then excreted by the kidneys.6
  • Liver. The molecule, acetaldehyde, is toxic to the body and can lead to liver cell damage. As the frequency and amount of alcohol consumed increases, damage to the liver also increases, leading to inflammation of the liver cells, known as alcoholic hepatitis. With continued alcohol use, the liver becomes scarred, resulting in alcoholic cirrhosis and even liver cancer.6 Some symptoms of a damaged liver include yellowing of the skin, yellowing of the whites of the eyes, a swelling of the abdomen called ascites, and other serious conditions, including bleeding from veins in the esophagus (esophageal varices) and even death.6
  • Alcohol abuse is the second most common cause of acute and chronic pancreatitis in the U.S.7 In the Etiology section It usually takes over 5 years for alcohol abuse to slowly damage the cells of the pancreas, leading to scarring and damage and inflammation. 7 Alcohol functions as an activator of digestive enzymes that the pancreas releases, leading to auto-digestion with alcoholic pancreatitis.7

If left untreated, alcohol abuse can impact future generations. In women who become pregnant and continue to drink alcohol, the alcohol will pass through the blood into the baby’s body through the umbilical cord. The child will suffer from lifelong physical, behavioral, and learning problems called fetal alcohol syndrome. Children with fetal alcohol syndrome may have:8

  • Central nervous problems.
  • A small head, with a smooth ridge between the upper lip and nose.
  • Growth and development problems.
  • Problems with memory, attention, learning, and hyperactivity.
  • Small and wide-set eyes that may cause vision problems.

Chronic alcohol abuse has also been shown to affect many of the signals involved in keeping blood pressure level normal and thus can lead to an increased incidence of hypertension and heart disease. 9Evidence shows that drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol of 1 drink for women and 2 drinks for men per day, increased people’s blood pressure and that there was no protective benefit of drinking alcohol.

Other serious problems related to chronic untreated alcoholism can include:10

  • Clouded thinking.
  • Reduced physical coordination.
  • Cancers of the mouth, throat, breast, and liver.
  • Irregular heartbeat and heart attacks.
  • Weaker immune system.

These long-term effects can be the result of lasting damage from many years of excessive alcohol consumption.

Alcohol Use Disorder & Dependence

Alcohol use can become more complex because there’s a spectrum of use. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the inability to stop or control the use of alcohol despite its negative social, health, and occupational effects.11

Although some people may try to stop drinking as they get too intoxicated, it can be hard to stop Continued alcohol consumption and intoxication can affect impulse control and decision making. Since alcohol stimulates the reward pathways in the brain—chemicals that produce feelings of pleasure and satisfaction—it can quickly change from intoxication into abuse and finally into dependence.11

Drinking excessively, such as binge drinking and heavy alcohol use, can increase the risk of developing an AUD. Drinking at an early age, genetics, a family history of alcoholism, a history of trauma, and other mental health conditions like depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder can all increase the risk of AUD.11

Lasting changes in people’s brain and body with AUD can make them vulnerable to relapsing. AUD encompasses alcohol dependence, also known as alcoholism. With the chronic presence of alcohol in the body, the body’s reward and balancing pathways will be dysregulated, resulting in tolerance, and ultimately dependence. With dependence, the individual feels like they will go into withdrawal, physical signs of discomfort, and even psychological distress.11

Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

When a person is alcohol dependent, their entire body and regulatory pathways require alcohol to keep them feeling normal. Stopping alcohol immediately when suffering from alcohol dependence can trigger a cascade of symptoms of alcohol withdrawal.12 

Mild symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include:12

  • Palpitations
  • Feeling anxious.
  • Headaches
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

If left untreated, alcohol withdrawal can progress to more severe symptoms culminating in seizures, hallucinations, and delirium tremens (DT). DT is the rapid onset of confusion combined with the previously mentioned physical effects of alcohol withdrawal.12 If left untreated, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal.

If you are thinking about quitting alcohol after a period of consistent or heavy consumption, it is important to speak with a healthcare provider. Your withdrawal symptoms may warrant emergency treatment or inpatient medical treatment.13This is for your safety, as the goal of treatment is to relieve the discomfort from the effects of alcohol withdrawal and to monitor for severe or life-threatening symptoms, so that you may progress into long-term treatment for alcohol dependence and AUD.

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

The effects of alcohol on the human body can vary significantly depending on factors like age, sex, weight, and overall physical health. Additionally, tolerance to alcohol is predetermined by certain genetic predispositions. The primary effects are generally the same. However, they might not be equally intensive for all people. When a person consumes alcohol in moderate quantities, they will experience enjoyable sensations like feeling happy and friendly for a few hours. Unfortunately, those initial pleasant effects make people consume larger amounts of alcohol, leading them to abuse, dependence, and addiction.1

Alcohol is a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant that affects many processes in nearly all body tissues and organs. When you consume it, your Blood Alcohol Level (BAC) rises, affecting the CNS functions and vital organs. Aside from the immediate side effects of alcohol, excessive and prolonged alcohol use can cause lasting damage:1, 2

  • The brain is the first organ to be affected by alcohol consumption. While short-term effects like lack of coordination and memory loss are temporary, long-term effects of alcohol on the body are significantly more severe. Prolonged alcohol use can cause permanent changes to the brain structure and functioning. The way different regions of the brain communicate between themselves can be affected and severely impaired, leading to cognitive decline, lasting memory issues, and mental health problems related to emotional response dysregulation.
  • The liver eliminates more than 90% of alcohol and is one of the organs most heavily affected by alcohol abuse. Heavy drinking can lead to liver inflammation, cirrhosis, fibrosis, alcoholic hepatitis, and fatty liver. Most of these conditions can be treated simultaneously with alcohol addiction after a proper diagnosis and an adequate care program. Fatty liver is a chronic condition that could cause type 2 diabetes and liver failure.
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Alcohol can damage the GI tract’s mucus, provoke appetite loss, and other abdominal problems, causing weight loss and malnutrition.
  • The heart is quite sensitive to the effects of excessive alcohol consumption, as its functioning can weaken over time, preventing nutrients and oxygen from being correctly delivered to all organs and tissues across the body.

The pancreas is involved in digestion and blood sugar level regulation. Prolonged alcohol abuse can cause inflammation (pancreatitis) and increase the risk of pancreatic cancer. Aside from this rapidly spreading type of cancer, the pancreas can also be affected by acute pancreatic attacks. Although pancreatitis can be managed by appropriate treatment and medication, it’s one of the conditions that are not easily reversible.

What Are the Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Addiction?

Short-term effects will last until the alcohol is completely eliminated from the system. While some don’t present a significant threat to your health, frequent use of large quantities of alcohol, binge drinking, and alcohol abuse can turn them into more than just an occasional occurrence of negative effects of alcohol.3

The intensity and type of the short-term effects of alcohol can significantly vary from person to person. Higher BAC levels will naturally cause more potent side effects. Depending on the amount of ingested alcohol and individual characteristics, one might experience some or several of the following effects:4, 5

  • Lowered inhibitions.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Confusion.
  • Decreased brain activity.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Poor coordination.
  • Memory issues.
  • Intensive mood swings
  • Slurred speech.
  • Blurred vision.
  • Memory lapses.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Gastrointestinal problems.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Blackouts with memory loss.

How Does Alcohol Affect Mental Health?

Some of the most significant long-term effects of excessive and prolonged alcohol abuse are mental health issues. The emotional and psychological effects of long-term use can be the main barrier to overcoming addiction and achieving lasting recovery. Since substance abuse often co-occurs with mental health issues, determining which one came first is challenging and often impossible.6

Symptoms of several mental health disorders and illnesses can be very similar or the same as symptoms of alcohol dependence. For example, one can develop an addiction to alcohol as a way to self-medicate or ease the symptoms of an already existing mental health disorder, or alternatively, mental health illness can develop as a result of changes in brain functioning caused by prolonged alcohol abuse.7

The most common psychological effects of alcohol include:8

  • Memory problems.
  • Cognitive issues.
  • Mood regulation problems.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Alcohol-induced bipolar disorder.
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Psychotic disorder.

How Does Alcohol Addiction Affect Family Relationships?

Alcohol use disorder and substance abuse issues, in general, don’t affect only the person suffering from it. Their illnesses also affect friends, families, and communities of alcohol-dependent individuals. In addition, there’s a strong correlation between alcohol abuse and hostility and aggressive behavior, which can lead to domestic violence, criminal activities, and other high-risk behaviors. Children are also deeply affected by their parent’s alcohol abuse. Many of them suffer the consequences of developmental trauma caused by neglect or abuse.9

Alcohol can affect one’s home life and relationship with family members in many ways, but some of the most common ones include:9

  • Broken or strained relationships, particularly with the affected person’s partner and children.
  • Financial issues that affect the whole family caused by lost employment.
  • Legal problems due to driving while intoxicated or provoking accidents.
  • Severe health issues that take a toll on the whole family.
  • Marital relationships can be affected by sexual dysfunction and alcohol-caused infertility.
  • Drinking while pregnant can result in miscarriage, stillbirth, or giving birth to a child with fetal alcohol syndrome.

Find Help for Alcohol Addiction Near Me

Recovery from alcohol abuse and dependence can seem like a daunting feat if done alone, but with the help of a treatment team, counselors, and support groups, individuals seeking help can stay on the path of recovery.

When seeking a treatment center, it is important to choose a center with treatments geared toward treating the whole person and addressing co-occurring mental illness, physical well-being, as well as providing help with navigating the social challenges that come with alcohol use disorder and addiction.

At American Addiction Centers (AAC), you will be treated for more than your addiction or alcohol abuse. Your unique strengths, challenges, and potential will be harnessed to help you in your treatment for addiction. Your recovery and healing process will take place in a safe environment. At AAC, a team of physicians and nurses will help manage the withdrawal process. You will be treated by compassionate and well-trained mental health clinicians and be given the tools you will need to help you stay sober and live a life in recovery.

AAC offers treatment in many states including Nevada, with treatment options of medical detox, residential and inpatient treatment, intensive outpatient programs, and recovery residences. Other services that will be offered at AAC include individual therapy, group therapy, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).

Getting the help needed if you or a loved one is actively suffering from AUD or alcohol dependence is especially important. If a loved one has reached out or if you are concerned with your amount of alcohol drinking, call the toll-free, confidential, 24/7 helpline at to start your path to recovery.

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