Physical Effects of Alcohol and Risk of Disease
Physical Effects & Dangers of Alcohol
Alcohol abuse, also known as alcohol misuse, occurs when a person consumes alcohol inappropriately or in ways that cause harm to themselves and the people around them. For example, blacking out, binge drinking, drinking too frequently, or using alcohol as a negative coping mechanism are examples of alcohol misuse which can contribute to several health-related issues. In fact, it’s been linked to over 200 diseases and health issues, including:1-3
- High blood pressure.
- Gastritis, or inflammation of the stomach.
- Heart disease.
- Liver disease (hepatitis, cirrhosis, fatty liver, liver cancer)
- Pancreatitis (infection and inflammation of the pancreas).
- Stomach ulcers.
- Mouth cancer.
- Immune system dysfunction, which makes individuals vulnerable to infections.
- Colon cancer.
- Breast cancer.
- Fetal alcohol syndrome.
- Alcohol use disorder.
Even small amounts of alcohol can cause:1
- Memory loss.
- Slurred speech.
- Balance problems.
- Slowed reaction times.
- Blurred vision.
- Poor night’s sleep.
- Lowered inhibitions.
Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC): Phases of Intoxication
While the full visible effects of alcohol might take some time to surface after an individual consumes alcohol, alcohol begins to impair thinking, reasoning, and muscle coordination quickly. That’s because alcohol is absorbed from the stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream, where it accumulates until it’s metabolized by the liver.4 The rate of absorption depends on several factors, including the amount, concentration, and type of alcohol consumed, the presence of food, the rate of gastric emptying (food moving from stomach to small intestine), gastrointestinal motility (the rate at which food moves from the mouth, through the digestive tract, and out of the body), and blood flow.5
Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is a measurement of the percentage of alcohol in the bloodstream at a given time.6 For instance, if an individual has a BAC of 0.10%, it means their blood contains one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts blood. Therefore, it’s an individual’s BAC, not the exact amount of alcohol they’ve consumed, that determines the effects the alcohol will have on them.
The following is an overview of the somewhat predictable stages of alcohol intoxication, illustrated by BAC levels, through which an individual may pass as they continue to drink.7
- 0.020-0.099%: At this stage, individuals usually experience pleasurable effects but typically experience some loss of muscle coordination. There might be changes in mood, personality, and behavior. Inhibitions have likely lessened at this point. Individuals usually believe they are functioning better than they are, which can lead them to operate a vehicle. A BAC of 0.08% is considered the legal limit to operate a motorized vehicle in all 50 states. In other words, if your BAC is equal to or greater than .08%, then you are over the legal limit to drive and will get a DUI if you are pulled over.
- 0.100-0.199%: The euphoric effects of alcohol will likely still be felt. Neurological impairment prolongs reaction times; impairs coordination, balance, and speech; and causes poor judgment.
- 0.20-0.299%: At this point, intoxication is obvious except in individuals with marked tolerance. For those without a very high tolerance, all mental, sensory, and physical capabilities become impaired. The individual may begin to feel nauseous; vomit; and exhibit significant lack of coordination, balance, and speech.
- 0.300-0.399%: Life-threatening conditions, such as hypothermia, severe dysarthria (muscles used to produce speech are damaged, paralyzed, or weakened from brain damage), amnesia (lack of memory), and stage 1 anesthesia (consciousness begins to slip) happen when the BAC reaches this level.
- 0.400-0.599%: The onset of alcoholic coma begins—the precise level depends on the individual’s degree of tolerance. Consciousness progressively reduces, and breathing, blood pressure, and body temperature decrease. In addition, individuals with this BAC level typically experience urinary incontinence or retention, and nearly or completely absent reflexes.
- 0.600-0.800% and above: This stage is often fatal because of a loss of airway due to obstruction by a paralyzed tongue, inhaling vomit through the windpipe and into the lungs, or the individual stops breathing.
Although BAC is a conclusive measure of the amount of alcohol in one’s body, it can be difficult to put into everyday language what this level means. To help clarify, consider how the BAC translates into the following (estimated) number of drinks for a 160-pound male:8
- A BAC of 0.02% equals approximately 2 alcoholic drinks.
- Three alcoholic beverages would raise his BAC to 0.05%.
- Four alcoholic drinks would increase his BAC to 0.08% and result in a DUI, DUII, or DWI in all 50 states if he got behind the wheel of a car.
- His BAC goes up to 0.10% when he consumes 5 drinks.
- And he is at approximately a BAC of 0.15% after 7 alcoholic drinks.
What Is An Alcohol Use Disorder?
Researchers, 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 misuse (alcohol abuse) can potentially develop into an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol use disorder is a medical condition that is defined by the inability to control alcohol consumption despite harmful consequences. In other words, an alcohol use disorder occurs when an individual compulsively misuses alcohol and continues abusing alcohol despite knowing the negative impact it has on their life.
The term “alcoholism”, although commonly still used in everyday language is considered outdated by addiction and health professionals because it carries a negative stigma and bias. . Medical understanding of problematic alcohol consumption has progressed considerably. Today, clinicians understand that the condition is a mental health disorder and treat it as they would diabetes or high blood pressure.
AUD is a diagnosable medical condition that requires a person to meet at least 2 of the 11 DSM criteria. If 2-3 factors are present, the person is considered to have a mild-grade AUD. If 4-5 factors are present, the disorder is graded moderate. If six or more symptoms manifest, the individual is deemed to have a severe AUD. The following is a selected sample of the criteria used in DSM-5 for AUD. In the past year, have you:9
- Had such a strong desire to drink that it was difficult to think about anything else?
- Continued to use alcohol despite being aware that you were at risk for depression, anxiety, medical complications, blackouts or risky decision making?
- Found that on more than one occasion binge drinking has caused exposure to a dangerous activity, such as driving, swimming, operating machinery, or having unprotected sex?
- Realized that you drink more alcohol than you used to in order to achieve the same desired intoxicated feeling; this is also known as developing an increased tolerance.
Individuals who are concerned that they may have signs and symptoms associated with an AUD should consider contacting a qualified clinician, therapist, or other addiction specialist so they can make a formal diagnosis and start treatment recommendations. It is important to keep in mind that alcohol use disorder can be treated with effective alcohol rehab services. A diagnosis is an important first step in recovery.
Binge Drinking Effects
A person who binge drinks or drinks heavily may or may not have an AUD. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, binge drinking is defined as excessive drinking—bringing an individual’s BAC to 0.08% or higher—in a confined period. This typically happens when men consume 5 or more drinks in 2 hours, and women drink 4 or more alcoholic beverages in the same time frame. Unfortunately, binge drinking is the most common form of excessive alcohol use in the United States.10 In fact, 44.4% of current alcohol users were classified as binge drinkers, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.11 Binge drinking has serious short-term and long-term effects.
Short-Term Effects of Binge Drinking
Short-term effects can happen whether an individual regularly participates in binge drinking or does it once. Some of the short-term effects of binge drinking alcohol include:12
- Decreased motor coordination leading to injuries, such as falls, drownings, burns, and car crashes.
- Nausea or vomiting.
- Violence, including sexual assault, domestic abuse, and suicide.
- Clouded judgement, which may lead to risky sexual behaviors, such as having unprotected sex.
- Miscarriage or stillbirth among pregnant women.
- Alcohol poisoning.
As BAC increases so do the risks. Binge drinking produces such dramatic increases in BAC that a person can suffer alcohol poisoning, a serious—and sometimes deadly—consequence of drinking high volumes of alcohol in a short period of time even after they stop consuming alcohol. The symptoms associated with alcohol poisoning may include:12
- Irregular breathing (slowed breathing or shallow breathing).
- Low body temperature leading to paleness or bluish skin color.
- Difficulty staying alert and awake; loss of consciousness.
- Slow heart rate.
- Clammy to the touch.
- Dulled or nonexistent reflexes.
Seek medical attention immediately. Do not wait for symptoms to progress. Someone who is passed out can die from alcohol overdose.12
Long-Term Effects of Binge Drinking
For individuals who binge drink repeatedly, the repeated behavior can cause long-term, negative health effects. The following are some long-term side effects associated with repeated binge drinking:10,13-15
- Alcohol use disorder.
- 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. Damage may range from memory lapses to debilitating conditions. In the adolescent brain, studies show that binge drinking and heavy alcohol use affects learning, attention, executive functioning, impulsivity, memory, depth perception, and spatial navigation—issues that may persist into adulthood.
- 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. Over time, individuals who binge drink may develop high blood pressure and/or suffer a heart attack or stroke.
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Repeated episodes of binge drinking among pregnant women can lead to birth defects and other problems in the fetus.
- Cancer. Heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, and liver cancers.
Take Our Alcohol Abuse Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute alcohol abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with alcohol abuse. 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 alcohol use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Alcohol Use and Your Health.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and the Immune System.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and Other Factors Affecting Osteoporosis Risk in Women.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About Alcohol.
- Perry, Paul J., Doroudgar, Shadi, and Van Dyke, Priuscilla. (2017). Ethanol Forensic Toxicology. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 45(4), 429-438.
- World Health Organization. The Global Health Observatory: Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit when driving a vehicle.
- Miller, S. C., Fiellin, D. A., Rosenthal, R. N., & Saitz, R. (2019). The ASAM Principles of Addiction Medicine, Sixth Edition. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Transportation Safety Impaired Driving: Get the Facts.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM-IV and DSM-5.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Alcohol and Public Health: Binge Drinking.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2020 National Survey of Drug Use and Health.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2004). Alcohol Alert: Alcohol’s Damaging Effects on the Brain.
- Lees, Briana, Meredith, Lindsay R., Kirkland, Anna E., Bryant, Brittany E., and Squeglia, Lindsay M. (2020). Effect of alcohol use on the adolescent brain and behavior. Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behavior.
- Shield, Kevin D., M.H.Sc., Perry, Charles, Ph.D, and Rehm, Jürgen, Ph.D. (2013). Focus On: Chronic Diseases and Conditions Related to Alcohol Use. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 35(2), 155-173.