What are the Effects of Alcohol?

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Author: Thomas Roth

Last Updated: 11/15/2021

Alcohol is a colorless liquid that's made from the fermentation of sugars from vegetables, fruits, and grains. It's commonly found in drinks like wine, beer, liquor, moonshine and it's the component of the beverage that causes intoxication. That said, alcohol is a toxic substance and the liver works hard to break it down. If too much alcohol is consumed someone can experience adverse side effects like headaches, loss of consciousness, vomiting, and even death.

What are the Effects of Alcohol on the Brain? 

Alcohol affects the brain in many ways and it depends on how much alcohol was consumed. At low blood alcohol levels (BAC), alcohol doesn't have many severe effects. When BAC reaches dangerous levels alcohol can impact the brain in many ways, even causing memory loss and loss of consciousness.

Below we have a description of what occurs at different blood alcohol levels:

  • Subliminal Intoxication: Blood alcohol levels between .01 and .05% won't cause much. Reaction time and judgment will be slowed and Impaired.

  • Euphoria: When you have a few drinks a common feeling is euphoria. Euphoria tends to occur at a BAC of between. 03 and lasts until about .12%

  • Excitement: BAC progresses from .09 to .25% major changes start to occur. During these stages, the occipital lobe, temporal lobe, and frontal lobes are affected. People will begin to experience a loss of coordination, hearing, vision, control, and more.

  • Confusion: BAC levels up to .03% will cause confusion, more coordination loss, and slurred speech. During this stage people might begin to lose consciousness or start to blackout.

  • Coma/Stupor: BAC levels of .35% or higher can result in a coma. With this BAC level, an individual is at risk of dying.

  • Death: BAC levels higher than .04% can cause death from alcohol poisoning.

Alcohol is a toxic substance and the more you have in your bloodstream the worse its effects will be on the brain.

What are the Effects of Alcohol on the Liver? 

The liver is responsible for breaking down alcohol that enters your body. While the liver can successfully remove alcohol from the body, the byproduct is toxic and damages liver cells. Long-term alcohol use can damage the liver over time.

Here are is how alcohol affects the liver:

  1. Fatty liver: Fat builds upon the liver and prevents it from normal functions.

  2. Inflammation of the liver: inflammation of the liver is a type of hepatitis. Symptoms may not be present at first but if left untreated it can cause health consequences 

  3. Acute alcoholic hepatitis: If inflammation of the liver progresses this deadly form of inflammation can occur. This condition causes jaundice (yellow skin tone) and can lead to liver failure.

  4. Scarring of the liver: Known as cirrhosis of the liver, this condition can cause liver failure and death. Scar tissue builds up within the liver and prevents the liver from working properly.

While many of these conditions are fatal, they can be prevented by not consuming alcohol frequently.

What are the Effects of Alcohol on the Pancreas? 

The pancreas is responsible for digestion and the regulation of blood sugar. The pancreas is responsible for keeping blood sugar levels in the body regulated and does so through the use of hormones. Consuming alcohol can throw off this balance and cause damage to the pancreas.

Damage of the pancreas tends to show up as two conditions:

  1. Acute pancreatitis: Acute pancreatitis consists of sudden pains towards the back of the abdomen that can last for several days. These attacks come and go and a third of all cases of acute pancreatitis are attributed to drinking.

  2. Chronic pancreatitis: Chronic pancreatitis occurs over time and the pancreas can't digest foods as well. Chronic pancreatitis can lead to weight loss and can cause people to develop diabetes.

The pancreas is a less talked about part of the body when bringing up the topic of alcoholism. That said, the pancreas helps the body maintain harmony, and when it's not working properly, the risk of death and diabetes skyrockets.

What are the Effects of Alcohol on the Body? 

Alcohol impacts the entire body and can cause uncomfortable physical changes and side effects. 

The impact that alcohol has on the body depends on how much alcohol is consumed but some of the most effects include:

  • Heart: Irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, stroke

  • Cancer: Prolonged alcohol use increases your risk for most types of cancer. Specifically, cancer of the stomach, mouth, and throat.

  • Weakened Immune System: When you consume alcohol your body works hard to remove it from the body. This leads to a reduction in immune function and leaves your body exposed to bacteria and viruses.

Alcohol affects everyone differently and it depends on how much and how often you drink.

What are the Short-Term Effects of Alcohol? 

Alcohol has several short-term effects that make it one of the most desired and common drugs. That said, alcohol also has some negative short-term effects that make people regret drinking it.

The common short-term effects of alcohol are:

  • Euphoria 

  • Slurred speech

  • Increased confidence and lowered inhibitions 

  • Sweating

  • Lack of coordination 

  • Blacking out

  • Loss of consciousness 

  • Vomiting

  • Stomach discomfort 

  • Diarrhea 

  • Headache

  • Coma 

  • Death 

Alcohol affects everyone differently and it varies based on the amount consumed.

What are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol? 

Drinking alcohol over long periods will cause adverse side effects and increased risks for diseases like heart disease, cancer, and strokes. 

While long-term alcohol use affects everyone differently, people who suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD) are at a higher risk for:

  • Cancer 

  • Stroke

  • Liver failure

  • Liver disease 

  • Acute pancreatitis 

  • Chronic pancreatitis 

  • Heart disease 

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol 

  • Damage to the brain

  • Stomach ulcers 

  • Obesity 

Drinking alcohol in moderation is unlikely to cause long-term health effects, so it's important to drink responsibly.

What are the Most Common Effects of Alcohol?

Alcohol affects the body in many ways. While it impacts everyone differently, some common issues come up infrequent drinkers and those who suffer from alcoholism.

1. Cancer 

Alcohol can lead to cancer when abused. The most common cancers associated with alcohol consumption include cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus, colon, voice box, and even the liver. In women, alcohol can also cause breast cancer. It's important to note that these cancers develop over time with frequent alcohol abuse and your risk of getting them doesn't increase after just one drink.

The symptoms of cancer include:

  • Tumors

  • Tender breasts 

  • Fatigue 

  • Cysts in the mouth

  • Sores in the mouth

  • Difficulty speaking 

  • Blood in feces

  • Blood in urine 

The symptoms vary based on the cancer type and when you catch the illness.

These types of cancers are treatable but it depends on when you get treated for the symptoms and what your doctor recommends. Some cancers will be treated with surgeries, while others will be treated with radiation and chemotherapy. For women, breast cancer may cause breast tissue to be removed. Alcohol is also known to increase your overall risk of getting cancer, so it's important to be careful with the substance.

2. Black Outs 

Alcohol can cause you to experience a blackout. Blacking out occurs when someone loses their ability to create short-term and long-term memories, which tends to happen after bouts of binge drinking (rapid consumption of alcohol). That said, people who suffer from blackouts tend to be fine the next day, albeit without memories from the night before.

There are also two types of blackouts. Some people will experience fragmentary blackouts, which allow people to recall some events from the night. The other type of blackout, en bloc, is when someone loses all recollection of the previous night. While the symptoms of fragmentary blackouts are milder, that doesn't make it safer. To prevent blacking out, we recommend sipping on your drinks, having a meal before drinking, and avoiding binge drinking.

3. Heart Damage 

Drinking alcohol can lead to heart damage. People who drink alcohol tend to have higher blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. Alcoholism can also lead to cardiomyopathy, which affects the heart muscle by enlarging its chambers and making it harder to pump blood around the body.

Some common symptoms associated with heart damage include:

  • Swelling in the legs

  • High blood pressure

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pains 

  • Heart attacks

  • Strokes 

Heart damage caused by alcohol is not reversible. If you or a loved one suffers from alcoholism it's best to get treatment to avoid heart damage before it starts. That said, there are treatment options for cardiomyopathy that you can discuss with your doctor.

4. Liver Damage 

One of the most common issues that alcoholics face is liver damage. The liver is responsible for clearing the body of alcohol, so it takes the most damage throughout the process. When liver cells get damaged the liver's ability to function properly decreases, which leads to liver failure and eventually death. While not all cases of liver damage are fatal, it's best to avoid damaging it in the first place.

Common symptoms of liver damage include:

  • Jaundice (yellow skin)

  • Blood in urine 

  • Abdominal pain

  • Weight loss 

  • Red palms

  • Yellowing of the eyes 

  • Extreme mental confusion

Treatment for a failing liver is done through a transplant but alcoholics must prove that they won't continue to drink before receiving a donor. That said, fatty liver can be treated by not drinking alcohol and living a healthier life.

5. Frequent Diarrhea 

When alcohol enters your body it has to pass through the stomach, intestines, and liver. During this process, especially if you haven't eaten, alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream quickly. Alcohol is absorbed through the intestines but it causes issues with gastrointestinal functions because of its toxicity.

Alcohol can cause your intestines to absorb less water, become inflamed, digest food faster, and even cause bacterial imbalances. These issues lead to diarrhea and inconsistent stool the day after drinking. For most people, symptoms occur the day after but for people with more irritable bowel, symptoms can occur quicker.

The symptoms of diarrhea include:

  • Flatulence 

  • Stomach discomfort 

  • Stomach cramps 

  • Indigestion 

  • Frequent bowel movements

  • Dehydration 

If you experience diarrhea after drinking it's important to hydrate quickly. Drinking causes dehydration, as does diarrhea, so it's important to replenish fluids.

6. Malnutrition 

Drinking large amounts of alcohol tends to satisfy caloric needs. While calories fuel the body, the type of fuel your body is running on is also important. For this reason, alcoholism can lead to malnutrition. While alcohol stimulates the body's desire to eat, drinking frequently can cause someone's appetite to decrease. Malnutrition from alcohol consumption can also lead to conditions like anemia, which is the result of a lowered red blood cell count.

Malnutrition has obvious symptoms and is easy to treat. People who aren't getting enough nutrients will suffer from things like:

  • Weight loss

  • Headaches

  • Fatigue 

  • Decreased immune function 

  • Loss in muscle tissue

  • Depression 

  • Changes in mood

Malnutrition is reversible and can be treated with vitamins and a proper diet.

7. Lung Infections 

Alcohol abuse over long periods can lead to lung Infections and lung inflammation. Drinking alcohol decreases the body's natural ability to fight infections, which leaves the lungs more vulnerable. Furthermore, alcohol abuse can lead to lung inflammation, which impairs a person's gag and cough reflexes. While that might sound like a relief, this increases the risk of deadly infections like pneumonia.

Symptoms of lung Infections include:

  • Coughing

  • Coughing up blood

  • Congestion in the chest

  • Tightness in the chest

  • Wheezing

  • Shortness of breath 

  • Lightheadedness

The way lung Infections are treated depends on the condition. Illnesses like bronchitis are treated with antibiotics, while other diseases might require draining the lungs. 

8. Birth Defects

Drinking alcohol while pregnant can lead to birth defects and a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome. The condition occurs when pregnant mothers drink alcohol during the pregnancy. The information is unclear about how much drinking leads to birth defects, so it's best to avoid drinking while pregnant altogether.

Symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome are noticeable and vary based on the severity of the condition. The most common symptoms include:

  • Small eyes

  • Thin upper lip

  • Slow growth before birth 

  • Heating and vision problems

  • Small head and brain 

  • Issues with the heart and kidneys

Fetal alcohol syndrome also has some notable cognitive symptoms that are hard to notice until the child grows after birth. These include cognitive impairments, stability issues, and even mental health issues. While fetal alcohol syndrome is treatable, there is no way to reverse the damage.

9. Infertility 

Alcohol can impact fertility when abused. In women that consume large amounts of alcohol there is a risk of worse periods, inconsistent menstrual cycles, and even infertility. In men, alcohol can reduce fertility by reducing testosterone levels, causing early ejaculation, shrinking the testicles, and even changing the size and movement of sperm cells.

Symptoms of infertility in men and women differ but it's easier to notice in women due to the changes in menstrual health. Infertility is hard to treat when permanent damage is done, so prevention is always the best option. That said, reducing alcohol consumption can improve your chances of conceiving.

10. Slurred Speech 

One of the most common effects of alcohol is slurred speech. Alcohol affects the region of the brain responsible for speech along with other areas. This causes people to slur their words and form incoherent sentences. Whole slurred speech can be amusing for some, it's a sign that someone had too much to drink.

Slurred speech can also be accompanied by other symptoms of drunkenness. These symptoms include:

  • Loss of coordination 

  • Stumbling while walking

  • Blacking out

  • Loss of consciousness 

  • Lowered inhibitions 

  • Dizziness 

  • Headaches 

Slurred speech is simple to treat as your body will restore its normal functions once the alcohol has cleared your system. Therefore, you just have to wait.

11. Hallucinations 

Many people overlook the fact that alcohol in large quantities can cause hallucinations; the condition is known as alcoholic hallucinosis. Alcohol hallucinosis is a rare condition that impacts alcoholics after large bouts of drinking. The onset of hallucinations tends to begin before or after periods of heavy drinking and the hallucinations are typically auditory. 

Some people report symptoms of:

  • Intense fear

  • Random noises

  • Derogatory commentary 

  • Third-person defects auditory hallucinations 

Not much else is known about the condition and how it develops. Treatment options are limited and encourage patients to seek help for alcohol abuse.

12. Behavior Changes 

Alcohol binds to receptors in the brain responsible for chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals are responsible for your mood and how you feel. While the brain's rewards systems are complex, a rush of alcohol can cause these chemicals to become unbalanced.

When the brain has an imbalance of dopamine and serotonin it can either be positive or negative. People can experience:

  • Happiness 

  • Euphoria

  • Depression 

  • Anxiety 

  • Aggressive behavior 

  • Sudden mood swings 

  • Energy 

  • Irritability 

If alcohol is abused over long periods treating these symptoms may require help from a licensed mental health professional. On the other hand, most people will return to normal on the following day.

13. Diabetes Complications 

Diabetics can consume alcohol in the same way most people can. The recommended limits are the same. That said, diabetics need to watch how much sugar is in each drink, even the carbohydrates. For diabetics, beverages like beer and mixed drinks can spike blood sugar and cause complications.

Some of these complications include:

  • Low or high blood sugar 

  • Feeling faint

  • Loss of consciousness 

  • Coma 

  • Death 

These conditions are treatable with blood sugar monitoring and insulin but it's best to focus on prevention.

14. Changes in Coordination 

Drinking large amounts of alcohol can lead to coordination issues. These tend to be short-term issues that go away once alcohol is cleared from the body. 

These changes in coordination include:

  • Slurred words

  • Stumbling

  • Slowed reaction time

  • Blacking out 

  • Loss of consciousness 

  • Falling

  • Blurry vision 

  • Dizziness 

  • Feeling faint 

Some of these symptoms can cause you to hurt yourself and others, so it's best to avoid reaching high levels of BAC. That said, coordination issues improve as alcohol is removed from the body.

15. Numbness 

Alcohol abuse disorder can lead to numbness in the body. The condition is known as alcoholic neuropathy. Alcohol can be toxic to nerve cells and when abused the substance can damage them. The damaged nerve cells may then be painful, numb, or release a tingling sensation.

Some common symptoms of the condition include:

  • Numbness

  • Burning

  • Tingling 

  • Prickly sensations 

  • Muscle cramps 

  • Muscle spasms 

  • Loss of motor function 

Alcohol neuropathy can also impact your organs and cause issues with bowel movement and intercourse levels.

Alcoholic neuropathy can be treated with medications and vitamins but patients need to stop drinking alcohol first. From there, doctors can start to develop an action plan to manage the symptoms and treat the condition. While many patients can manage the symptoms, the ailment is not curable.

What is Standard Drinking?

A standard drink in the United States is an alcoholic beverage that has roughly 14 grams of alcohol in it. That's typically 12 fluid ounces of 5% beer, 5 fluid ounces of 12% wine, 1.5 fluid ounces of 40% liquor. Understanding how much you're drinking can reduce the effects of alcohol, reduce the risk of developing alcoholism, and can help you live a healthier life.

Author
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Thomas Roth
Lead Editor

Thomas has been working in the substance abuse industry for over 3 years and he's made it his mission to help those in need. Tom started out by writing content to help people find addiction treatment centers near their location. Once he understood the value in the words he wrote Tom shifted to outreach, editing, and content creation. If nothing else, Tom wants to see those who struggle with Alcohol abuse disorder recover.