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Physical Effects of Alcohol & Risk of Disease

What Are Some of The Physical Health Consequences of Alcoholism?

Alcohol has been linked to over 200 diseases and health issues, including:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Hepatitis
  • Gastritis
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Pancreatitis
  • Epilepsy
  • Mouth cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Stroke
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Anemia
  • Dementia
  • Seizures
  • Gout
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Anxiety

Even small amounts of alcohol can cause:

  • Memory loss
  • Balance problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Slowed reaction times
  • Blurred vision
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lowered inhibitions

Denial is often a byproduct of alcohol or other drug abuse. At best, denial is a convenient means to protect the substance abuse, but at worst, it can lead to negative health consequences.
Drinking is associated with both short-term and long-term health consequences. Although illness and disease can manifest, there is a host of health troubles that can arise from alcohol-involved accidents or violent attacks.

Unfortunately, alcohol has the ability to quickly separate people from their intentions. For instance, although some people may drink simply to socialize, a rise in their blood alcohol content (BAC) can invite numerous unintended consequences.

In the case of prolonged drinkers, such as people who have alcohol use disorder, alcohol abuse can cause certain diseases to develop. The more educated Americans are about the physical impact of alcohol, the more opportunity they have to make smart decisions about alcohol consumption. If addiction is in play, alcohol use isn’t a matter of willpower; in these cases, alcohol abuse treatment is needed.

Take Our “Am I an Alcoholic?” Self-Assessment

Take our free, 5-minute “Am I an Alcoholic?” self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with an alcohol use disorder (AUD). The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of an AUD. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.

Understanding the Phases of Intoxication

Man Shows Willpower Not To Drink Alcohol

The acronym BAC is most often heard in the context of a DUI arrest. In general, states consider a BAC of 0.08 or greater to be the legal intoxication amount. BAC can also help to clarify the relationship between the volume of alcohol in the blood and the effects the individual drinker experiences. The following is an overview of different BAC levels and known side effects:

  • 0.07-0.09 percent: At this stage, individuals usually experience pleasurable effects as well as a minor impairment in speech, memory, balance, hearing, reaction time, and vision. Inhibitions have likely lessened at this point. Individuals usually believe they are functioning better than they actually are, which can lead them to operate a vehicle.
  • 0.125 percent: The euphoric effects of alcohol will likely still be felt. Physical coordination and judgment skills may be significantly impaired. The person drinking may appear to have slurred speech and be off balance. Vision, hearing, and reaction time will likely be impaired.
  • 0.13-0.15 percent: Now the person will likely experience less euphoria and possibly anxiety or restlessness. There may be a dramatic loss of motor skills and coordination. Vision may be significantly blurred. The person’s perception and judgement may be significantly impaired.
  • 0.25 percent: This results in impairment of all mental, sensory, and physical capabilities so great that the person is at risk of choking on vomit, falling, or getting into a serious accident.
  • 0.3 percent and above: Consciousness may diminish, ranging from a stupor to a coma to death.

Although BAC is a conclusive measure of the amount of alcohol in one’s body, it is an abstract idea. To help clarify BAC, consider how it translates into the following (estimated) number of drinks by sex:
  • BAC of 0.08 percent equals approximately 3-4 drinks in men who weigh 160 pounds, 4 drinks if 180-200 pounds, and 5 drinks if 240 pounds.
  • BAC of 0.13-0.15 percent equals approximately 6 drinks in men who weigh 160 pounds, 6-7 drinks if 180 pounds, 7-8 drinks if 200 pounds, and 8-9 drinks if 240 pounds.
  • BAC of 0.08 percent equals approximately 2 drinks in women who weigh 120 pounds, 2-3 drinks if 160 pounds, and 3 drinks if 180 pounds.
  • BAC of 0.13-0.15 percent equals approximately 4 drinks in women who weigh 120 pounds, 4-5 drinks if 140 pounds, 5 drinks if 160 pounds, and 5-6 drinks if 180 pounds.

In terms of BAC, a rate of 0.30 percent or greater is a serious dangerous zone, and death can even result. Men who weigh at least above 140 pounds can generally have as many as 10 drinks before they reach this hazardous point. Depending on a woman’s weight, six drinks can present a major danger to life. For instance, a 90-pound woman may reach a 0.30 percent BAC at the six-drink mark while a 120-pound woman would require only two more drinks to reach this critical state.
The sample BAC information provided demonstrates that physical impairment does not require a high number of drinks (if you think about how much drinking can occur, for example, in a party setting). Further, the health risks associated with ongoing alcohol consumption over a limited period of time (like a party) can increase significantly drink to drink.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Woman In Depressed Mood Sits On The WindowResearchers, psychiatrists, medical clinicians, therapists, and other addiction professionals rely on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM V) to diagnose mental health disorders. Alcohol abuse is referred to as “alcohol use disorder” and further subdivided into mild, moderate, and severe classifications. The term “alcoholism” is mainly colloquial and frequently resonates of the biases and stigmas of yesteryear. Medical understanding of problematic alcohol consumption has progressed considerably; today, clinicians understand that the condition is a mental health disorder and treat it as neutrally as they would diabetes or high blood pressure. For diagnostic purposes, DSM-5 provides clinicians with 11 potential factors involved in alcohol use. In a given 12-month period, if an individual has at least two of any of the 11 factors, the person is considered to have an alcohol use disorder. If 2-3 factors are present, the person is considered to have a mild grade alcohol use disorder. If 4-5 factors are present, the disorder is graded moderate. In the event that six or more symptoms manifest, the individual is deemed to have a severe alcohol use disorder. The following is a selected sample of the criteria used in DSM-5 for alcohol use disorder. In the past year, have you:

  1. Had a desire for a drink that was so acute that it was difficult to think about anything else?
  2. Continued to use alcohol despite being aware that drinking was causing anxiety or depression, complicating a health problem, or leading to a blackout?
  3. Found that on more than one occasion drinking caused exposure to a dangerous activity, such as driving, swimming, operating machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unprotected sex?
  4. Realized that more alcohol is required than in earlier times in order to achieve the desired intoxicated feeling?

Individuals who are concerned that they may have an alcohol use disorder may consider their specific experiences in view of DSM-5 criteria. Although a qualified clinician, therapist, or other addiction specialist should make a diagnosis, it may be a helpful starting point to consider these criteria. It is important to keep in mind that alcohol use disorder can be treated with effective rehab services. A diagnosis is an important first step in recovery.

Binge Drinking and Its Side Effects

A person who binge drinks/drinks heavily may or may not have an alcohol use disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking is defined as excessive drinking, generally in a confined period of time. Binge drinking is a common practice in American culture. Approximately 75 percent of the alcohol American adults consume is taken in via binge drinking. Americans under 21 years of age are especially prone to this behavior. Approximately 90 percent of the alcohol taken in by young individuals is via binge drinking. Unfortunately, binge drinking and driving under the influence are closely associated activities. Binge drinking carries both short-term and long-term effects. Short-term effects of binge drinking include:

  • Poor balance and coordination
  • Nausea
  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting
  • Hangover
  • Shakiness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Poor decision-making
  • Memory loss

Binge drinking produces such dramatic increases in BAC that a person can suffer alcohol poisoning. The symptoms associated with alcohol poisoning include but are not limited to irregular or slow breathing, low body temperature, paleness, and seizures. Medical attention should immediately be sought as alcohol poisoning can rapidly escalate in intensity. In some cases, a person can slip into a coma.
For some individuals who binge drink, it is a more of a party-specific activity than an ongoing practice. However, there are some individuals who binge drink repeatedly, and this behavior can cause long-term negative health effects. The following are some long-term side effects associated with repeated binge drinking:

  • Alcoholism: If binge drinking occurs frequently, a physical dependence on alcohol may develop. Physical dependence (including increased tolerance and withdrawal if drinking stops) can exist without addiction forming, but with continued drinking, a psychological dependence on alcohol is likely to develop.
  • Brain damage: Unfortunately, if individuals consume a heavy volume of alcohol over an extended period of time, they may cause structural changes in the brain, especially the complexes associated with learning and decision-making. Adolescent brains, particularly the forebrain, are especially susceptible to damage from excessive drinking. If the forebrain is damaged, studies show the individual may have weaker control over their ability to stop drinking in the future.
  • Liver damage: It is well established that alcohol damages the liver and disrupts its healthy functioning and ability to repair itself. Some individuals may develop alcohol-induced liver damage as a result of chronic drinking or binge drinking.
  • Cardiovascular disease: The presence of alcohol and increasing amounts of BAC in the body cause stress on the heart. Over time, individuals who binge drink may develop high blood pressure and/or suffer a heart attack or stroke.
  • Sexual dysfunction: In men, research studies and patient reports show that ongoing binge drinking can lead to erectile dysfunction.

Although the short-term and long-term effects of binge drinking provide enough of an incentive to avoid this activity, consideration should also be given to the host of possible social, personal, and legal consequences that can result. For instance, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcohol is a contributing factor in 40 percent of all violent crimes. Based on reports from victims, alcohol played a role in 37 percent of sexual assaults, 27 percent of aggravated assaults, 15 percent of robberies, and 25 percent of simple assaults.

Heath Conditions & Diseases Related to Alcohol

Certain chronic diseases and conditions have been shown to be causally linked to alcohol consumption. Some conditions are 100 percent attributable to alcohol consumption. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the following are some of the conditions that alcohol use can directly cause:

  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Alcoholic gastritis
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy
  • Alcoholic liver disease
  • Alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis of liver
  • Alcoholic fibrosis and sclerosis of the liver
  • Alcoholic fatty liver
  • Alcoholic hepatic failure

Alcohol is cited as a component cause in over 200 diseases and conditions, which means these health outcomes can develop without the presence of alcohol, but there is still an association with alcohol. In general, these diseases and conditions relate to the total volume of alcohol that the afflicted individuals have consumed over their lifetimes. The following is a partial list of some of the diseases and conditions associated with alcohol abuse:

  • Epilepsy
  • Mouth cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Unipolar depressive disorder
  • Hypertensive heart disease
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Prostate cancer
  • Breast cancer

Chronic heavy drinking is also associated with well-known conditions such as anemia, dementia, seizures, and gout.

Alcohol use can exacerbate a variety of conditions to which it is neither a component nor casually related. For instance, alcohol can cause a flare-up of common maladies like irritable bowel syndrome, restless leg syndrome, and anxiety. Some individuals suffer from an allergy to alcohol and may develop a skin rash and stuffy nose immediately after consumption. Alcohol is not a reaction-free substance.

A main way for individuals to avoid unwanted side effects is to understand the various conditions or reactions that can occur based on mild, moderate, or heavy use.

Getting the Help You Need

Realizing you may need help is the first step towards recovery. Explore treatment centers in locations near you.

Last Updated on October 26, 2021
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