The Risks & Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Although alcohol is a commonly used and socially acceptable substance, it can still have harmful effects on a person’s health.1 There are both short- and long-term health risks that may result from drinking alcohol.
To better gauge alcohol drinking habits, it is helpful to understand what constitutes a standard drink as well as moderate consumption. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the U.S., a standard drink is:1
- 12 ounces of beer (at 5% alcohol by volume, or ABV).
- 8 ounces malt liquor (at 7% ABV).
- 5 ounces of wine (at 12% ABV).
- 1.5 ounces of liquor (at 40% ABV).
A moderate level of drinking is defined as having 1 drink in a day for women and 2 drinks in a day for men.1, 2
Further, binge drinking is defined as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08% or higher according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).2 Typically, this is at least 4 drinks for women or 5 drinks for men within a 2-hour period at least once in the last month.1, 2
Heavy drinking is more than 3 drinks in 1 day for women, or more than 4 drinks in a day for men; or it can also involve binge drinking on 5 or more occasions within the last month.2
Although a person may not drink alcohol regularly, they should still be aware of the risks that come along with imbibing.
Short-Term Risks of Alcohol
The short-term risks of drinking alcohol go up as a person’s blood alcohol levels or blood alcohol content (BAC) rises.3, 21 These risks can include:1, 3, 4
- Car accidents.
- Greater likelihood of exposure to, or propensity toward, violence.
- Impaired judgment, which may lead to risky sexual activity or other risky behaviors.
- Increased risk for accidents.
- Loss of coordination, which can cause falls.
As a person’s BAC increases, the risk of harm to oneself or others increases as well. BAC depends on a variety of factors, including gender, weight, age, whether you’ve eaten or not, and how much alcohol you’ve consumed.3 At lower BAC levels (.02%-.05%), common effects can include feeling relaxed, having impaired judgment, changes in mood and behavior, loss of inhibition, and difficulty with coordination and vision that can make driving difficult.5
At a BAC of .08%, coordination, judgment, and impulse control are further impaired, along with perception and short-term memory, and a person’s ability to identify dangerous situations is affected.5 At higher levels (.10%-.15%), a person begins to slur their speech, coordination deteriorates, thinking slows further, balance is severely affected, and vomiting may occur.5
Long-Term Risks of Alcohol
Over time, heavy drinking can contribute to the development of chronic diseases, serious mental or physical issues, or developing an alcohol use disorder.1, 2, 4 Alcohol can harm the cardiovascular system, digestive system, brain, and immune system, has the potential to cause or exacerbate psychiatric and learning issues, and can contribute to the development of certain types of cancer.1, 2
In addition to health risks, heavy alcohol consumption over a long period of time may cause or worsen social issues.6 Some people may struggle with employment problems, relationship disputes, breakups or divorce, loss of housing, or domestic violence.6
Mental Health Risks of Alcohol Use
Additionally, alcohol use can negatively affect a person’s psychological, or mental health.7 Over time, alcohol use can change how the brain functions.7 These changes can affect a person’s mood and behavior, and disrupt chemicals in the brain that are associated with the development of mental health disorders.7, 8
Heavy drinking increases the likelihood of experiencing certain mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, antisocial personality disorder, and schizophrenia.8, 9 When alcohol use disorder and mental illness happen together, this is known as a co-occurring disorder.10
People with an AUD are 3.2 times more likely to experience major depressive disorder and are 1.5 times more likely to experience an anxiety disorder. 8, 11 Among people with alcohol use disorder, men are up to 4-8 times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder and women are 12- 17 times more likely to have antisocial personality disorder than the general population.8
Alcohol use can also induce mental health disorders in some people.8, 9 Alcohol can induce significant depressive, bipolar, or psychotic symptoms during and after intoxication, as well as increase the risk of suicidal behaviors.8, 9 When alcohol-induced, these symptoms generally fade over time once a person stops drinking, ranging from a few days to weeks after a person’s last drink.8
Alcohol’s Long-Term Effects on the Body
Over time, alcohol can also harm many of the body’s major organs and increase the chances of developing a chronic illness and severe physiological health issues.1, 4, 9 Regular, heavy drinking can affect organ systems in the following ways:
- Heart: Alcohol use increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, heart failure, damage to the muscle of the heart, and peripheral artery disease.1, 6, 12 It can also cause the heart to beat irregularly.7
- Liver: Since alcohol is processed in the liver, this organ is commonly affected by heavy or long-term drinking.13 Liver disease often progresses in stages of inflammation, beginning with fatty liver (steatosis), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, and finally cirrhosis.1, 6, 7, 13 Cirrhosis is when the liver becomes scarred and does not work properly.14 Liver disease can also increase the risk of liver cancer.14
- Brain: Alcohol can cause learning and memory problems as well as dementia.1, 9, 13 Vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, associated with prolonged heavy drinking, can lead to a severe illness known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, involving confusion, problems with muscle coordination, and severe and permanent loss of both short-term and long-term memory. 9, 13 Severe liver disease, such as cirrhosis, can also affect the brain and alter personality, mood, cognition, and lead to mental health disorders.13
- Digestive system: Alcohol use can severely irritate the gastrointestinal tract and lead to the development of stomach ulcers or irritation of the lining of the stomach.9 Alcohol can also cause pancreatitis, painful and dangerous inflammation and swelling in the pancreas that interferes with the body’s ability to digest food.6, 7, 9
- Nervous system: Heavy drinking can cause damage to the nerves, known as neuropathy. 9, 13 This can be painful and lead to weakness and reduced sensation in the hands and feet, which is called peripheral neuropathy. 9, 13
- Immune system: Alcohol reduces how effectively a person’s immune system functions, which makes people who drink more susceptible to illness.7, 9 Immunological impairment can occur after only one episode of binge drinking.7
- Cancer: Alcohol use has been linked to increased risk of various types of cancer, including cancer of the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, breast, colon, and rectum.1, 6, 7 The risk increases relative to the amount of alcohol a person drinks regularly.7
- Hormones: Alcohol can interfere with the body’s production of hormones and raise the risk of developing diabetes and weight gain.15 It can also lower fertility in males by lowering levels of testosterone and sperm count and causing impotence.15
- Developmental disabilities: Drinking while pregnant or breastfeeding can have harmful effects on a developing baby.13 No amount of alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.15, 16 Drinking during pregnancy can also increase the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.16 Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder may occur when alcohol is consumed during pregnancy and can cause a variety of symptoms, including facial deformities, learning disabilities, trouble with speech and language, intellectual disabilities, behavioral issues, trouble with focus and memory, low birth weight, and physical issues, especially with the heart, bones, or kidneys.13, 16
Dangers of Alcohol Poisoning
Among the more serious effects of alcohol use is the likelihood of experiencing alcohol poisoning or an overdose. If a person drinks alcohol faster than the body can process it, their BAC can rise to dangerous levels.3, 17 This is likely to occur in binge drinking situations and is extremely dangerous.3, 17
Signs of alcohol poisoning include:6, 17, 18
- Slurring excessively.
- Breathing that is slow, shallow, or irregular.
- Very slow heart rate.
- Skin that is pale, has a blue tint, is cold or clammy.
- Not being responsive to stimuli while conscious.
- Loss of consciousness.
Severe alcohol poisoning can be life-threatening if not treated and can cause a coma and/or irreversible brain damage.3, 17, 18 If someone you know is showing signs of alcohol poisoning, the best thing to do is call 9-1-1 immediately and stay with them until help arrives.6, 18
Treatment for Alcoholism
When a person can’t control their drinking and it begins to impact their life regularly, they may have an alcohol use disorder. If you think that you or your loved one may have an alcohol use disorder, some signs to watch for include:9, 19
- Continuing to drink even after it has caused or worsened issues in social relationships.
- Continuing to drink even after it has contributed to physical or mental health issues.
- Cutting back on or quitting hobbies or important activities related to work due to drinking.
- Drinking more or for a longer period of time than originally planned.
- Having difficulty managing tasks at home, school, or work because of drinking.
- Wanting to cut back or stop drinking completely, but not being able to.
- Experiencing signs of tolerance, where more alcohol is needed to experience the desired effect, or the same amount of alcohol doesn’t cause the same effect.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is stopped.
Various types of effective treatments are available for people with alcohol use disorder.19 Treatment for alcohol use disorder can be provided in different types of settings and involves different techniques, including behavioral therapy, medication-assisted treatment, and mutual -help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.19, 20
Inpatient treatment involves staying at a facility for the duration of treatment and involves intensive amounts of group and individual therapy.20 Outpatient treatment is less intensive care that is provided while patients stay in their own homes and can continue to participate in most or all of their usual daily responsibilities while receiving group and individual therapy.20
Regardless of treatment setting, patients will also participate in behavioral therapies focused on improving the skills needed to maintain abstinence. These include learning coping skills to manage stressors, identifying situations that increase risk for relapse, developing and implementing relapse prevention skills, improving communication skills, and addressing any physical or mental health issues.19, 20
Attending mutual-help meetings can also help improve coping skills, reduce the likelihood of relapse, and develop a strong sober support network.19, 20 Additionally, medications are available to support treatment for alcohol use disorder and reduce the risk of relapse when combined with behavioral therapies.19
If you’re ready to seek treatment for alcoholism, American Addiction Centers (AAC) can help. AAC is a nationwide provider of addiction treatment centers and operator of AlcoholRehab.com. Our admissions navigators are available 24/7 to discuss your treatment options with you. All calls are 100% confidential.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Alcohol use and your health.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Drinking levels defined.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Blood alcohol level.
. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2015). Dietary guidelines 2015-2020: Appendix 9.
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Blood alcohol concentration.
. National Health Service. (2018). Alcohol misuse.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s effects on the body.
. Shivani, R., Goldsmith, R.J., & Anthenelli, R.M. (2002). Diagnostic challenges. Alcohol Research & Health, 26(2), 90-98.
. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Comorbidity: Substance use disorder and other mental illnesses.
. McHugh, R. K., & Weiss, R. D. (2019). Alcohol Use Disorder and Depressive Disorders. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 40(1), arcr.v40.1.01.
. Piano, M.R. (2017). Alcohol’s effects on the cardiovascular system. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 38(2), 219-241.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol’s damaging effects on the brain. Alcohol Alert, 63, 1-8.
. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2020). Alcoholic liver disease.
. Australian Government Department of Health. (2020). What are the effects of alcohol?
. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Alcohol use in pregnancy.
. National Health Service. (2019). Alcohol poisoning.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Understanding the dangers of alcohol overdose.
. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2014). Treatment for alcohol problems: Finding and getting help.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of drug addiction treatment: A research-based guide (Third edition).
. Romano, E., Torres-Saavedra, P., Voas, R. B., & Lacey, J. H. (2014). Drugs and alcohol: their relative crash risk. Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs, 75(1), 56–64.