Alcohol addiction can cause a variety of serious side effects. Some of them are short-term, while others may last a lifetime.
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Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Consumption
The short-term effects of alcohol use appear after just a few drinks. However, people who have low tolerance levels—first-time drinkers or those with a specific genetic makeup—may be affected after having only one drink. Some of these effects might seem harmless, but they are signals that alcohol is taking effect in the body.
The short-term effects of alcohol use and abuse include:
- Feelings of Relaxation: A feeling of “loosening up” and a sense of euphoria accompany the first few drinks. This is high that people crave and the reason many people turn to intoxicants when they feel stressed and/or depressed.
- Vomiting, Nausea and Diarrhea: Alcohol can irritate the lining of the stomach and triggers these symptoms, which may become severe if drinking continues.
- Shallow Breathing: Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant. It inhibits (slows) various physiological functions, including breathing and heart rate. During episodes of severe binge drinking, these effects could be life-threatening.
- Slower Reflexes and Impaired Hearing and Vision: The initial stimulatory effect of alcohol soon wears off. Because the CNS controls the senses and motor functions, drinking alcohol decelerates the brain’s reaction time. The effects include slower reflexes, slurred speech, reduced hearing and clouded eyesight.
- Fatigue and Sleepiness: Because alcohol is a depressant, it has a calming effect. After the initial high wears off, weariness and drowsiness usually set in.
- Blackouts and Memory Lapses: These side effects of alcohol abuse are common among heavy drinkers. Often binge drinkers have no memories of their behavior and are surprised to find they were involved in arguments or even physical altercations.
- Clouded Thinking and Loss of Inhibitions: Neural impairment is experienced by those under the influence, reducing inhibitions, distorting perception and undermining the ability to think clearly and rationally. This can lead to risky, aggressive or dangerous behavior, which may seem completely out of character in an otherwise easy-going individual.
- Mood Swings: The initial effects of drinking alcohol include the release of dopamine and endorphins in the brain, which creates a head rush that problem drinkers come to crave. But this effect is temporary, and eventually, dopamine and endorphin levels will crash—and the moods of alcoholics or binge drinkers will come crashing back to earth right along with them. Depression in alcoholics can become chronic, and when it reaches extreme levels, it can trigger suicidal thoughts.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Continuous, heavy, habitual drinking takes a toll on the human body. As a result of their self-destructive behavior, alcoholics may suffer dire long-term effects that produce irreversible consequences.
Some of the long-term, harmful effects of alcohol on the body include:
- Increased Tolerance. As the brain and body adjust to continuous drinking tolerance gradually builds, and the problem drinker will have to consume more and more alcohol to achieve the same effects. This is a recipe for addiction, which will inevitably develop as drinking behavior escalates. Rising alcohol consumption also increases the risk for alcohol poisoning and overdose, which can be fatal.
- Potentially Harmful Withdrawal Symptoms. Patterns of prodigious consumption can trigger intense withdrawal symptoms should the alcoholic attempt to stop drinking. The most severe of these symptoms is delirium tremens (DTs), which is a medical emergency and can be deadly if it is not treated promptly.
- Increased Risk of Developing Diabetes. Chronic alcohol consumption increases the risk for type II diabetes. Alcohol is loaded with carbohydrates and can contribute to obesity, while also decreasing insulin sensitivity (insulin regulates blood sugar levels) as it damages the pancreas, the insulin-secreting organ of the body. Diabetes is a frequent companion of heavy drinking and can be especially dangerous in older alcoholics.
- Liver Damage. Alcohol damages the liver and can cause cirrhosis or liver cancer. The alcohol-induced liver disease is responsible for one-third of liver transplantations in the U.S., and close to 50 percent of cirrhosis fatalities can be directly linked to heavy drinking.
- Chronic High Blood Pressure. Problem drinkers have consistently elevated blood pressure, at well beyond the danger zone. Chronic high blood pressure damages the kidneys, heart, and arteries, and increases the risk of stroke and heart attack.
- Damage to the Heart. Alcohol damages the heart by boosting heart rate, blood pressure and the levels of certain fats in the bloodstream. As a result, chronic alcohol abuse dramatically increases the risk for cardiovascular disease.
- Stomach and Intestinal Ulcers. Massive quantities of alcohol consumed over time can have a corrosive effect on the interior of the body, leading to ulcers that may ultimately burst and put the drinker’s life in danger.
- Increased Risk of Some Forms of Cancer: The negative health effects of alcohol abuse are many and myriad, and the list includes an increased risk for cancer of the mouth, throat, breast, liver, and colon.
- Lasting brain damage. Excessive drinking causes a loss of brain cells, which results in decreased brain mass. Eventually, this deterioration and its associated effects can provoke the onset of alcohol-related dementia, a severe disease that mimics Alzheimer’s.
Long-Term Psychological and Neurological Effects of Alcoholism
Chronic alcohol consumption damages brain cells, sometimes permanently. Alcohol is, by nature, neurotoxic, and long-term consumption can have a dramatic impact on brain functioning and psychological wellness. Some of the severe conditions or disorders it can cause include:
- Mild to Severe Cognitive Impairment: Continuous and uncontrolled drinking can cause memory problems and learning difficulties, and over time dementia may develop if the alcoholic refuses to seek help for their condition.
- Mental Disorders: Chronic alcohol consumption increases the risk of a person developing mental health conditions like depression or anxiety disorders. In other instances, people may drink to escape the symptoms of their already-existing mental illness, but in the long run alcohol will only make their symptoms more debilitating.
- Wet Brain Syndrome: Wet Brain syndrome is a neural disorder that occurs in up to 80 percent of alcoholics. It is caused by a deficiency of thiamine or vitamin B1, which is one of the side effects of alcohol abuse. Alcoholics tend to ignore their diets, which can lead to thiamine deficiency, but chronic drinking also impairs the body’s ability to absorb thiamine from the usual food sources. If not treated, wet brain syndrome can cause permanent neurological damage, including severe learning difficulties and memory problems that may render the person incapable of living independently.
- Hepatic Encephalopathy: Alcohol damages the liver, the organ responsible for breaking down toxins and excreting them from the body. Poor liver function can cause a buildup of poisons like ammonia and manganese, which can migrate to the brain and damage neural cells severely enough to cause cognitive dysfunction. There is high risk for a condition called hepatic encephalopathy, a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes changes in mood, personality and motor functioning. In severe cases, hepatic encephalopathy sufferers may slip into a coma.
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS): FAS is a lifelong developmental disorder that occurs in children who had been exposed to alcohol in utero. It can cause stunted growth, abnormal facial features and mental, emotional, behavioral and cognitive impairment consistent with damage to the central nervous system. FAS is one of the most devastating alcohol side effects, and it is a risk faced by any pregnant woman who chooses to drink.
- Co-occurring Drug Addiction: Alcoholism alters the reward circuitry of the brain, boosting production of pleasure-inducing neurochemicals like dopamine and endorphins. Other drugs cause the same effects, and alcoholics who come to crave feelings of intoxication and euphoria may be drawn to other substances that fill their psychological need to get high. Alcoholics also exhibit poor judgment in general, making it more likely they will experiment with illicit drugs.
Other behavioral, emotional and psychological long-term effects of alcohol abuse may include:
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Swings or shifts in mood and personality
- Shortened attention span
- Problems with coordination
- Violent behavior
- Inability to speak or think coherently
- Low self-esteem
- Thoughts of suicide or suicide attempts
Overcoming the Effects of Alcoholism
Alcoholism affects people from all backgrounds and all walks of life, and no one who drinks is immune from the threat.
In 2016, results obtained during the National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that 136.7 million Americans aged 12 or older were current users of alcohol. That included 65.3 million who admitted to binge drinking and 16.3 million who reported heavy drinking within the past month.
These numbers reveal the depth of America’s collective descent into risky alcohol-related behavior, and for those who’ve fallen victim to addiction their best hope for recovery is to seek professional assistance from trained addiction specialists.
If you have an alcohol problem, you shouldn’t be ashamed to ask for assistance, and you should ask now before it is too late. Detox and addiction rehab centers offer recovery programs that can help even the most desperate individual overcome their dependency on alcohol, and regardless of the nature and severity of your drinking problem they can help you, too.
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