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Alcohol Effects

Even in small amounts, alcohol can wreak havoc on every part of the body. For people who drink heavily and frequently, real and serious damage can be done to the brain, respiratory system, digestive system, immune system, and cardiovascular system.

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How Alcohol Consumption Affects Your Body

Excessive alcohol use or alcohol use disorder can lead to serious health conditions, regardless of whether it’s for a single occasion or consistent heavy drinking. High levels of alcohol can lead to immediate health problems such as alcohol poisoning and accidents or worsened violence caused by impairment.

Being aware of the life-threatening effects of alcohol is essential to avoiding serious health problems and getting help for alcohol use disorder. Knowing your health risks when drinking alcohol can help you make the best decision for your health and the health of others.

There are also deeper side effects alcohol intake can cause beyond the immediate health concerns. Even moderate drinking can increase your risk of long-term health issues in every part of the body.

Brain and Central Nervous System

Alcohol consumption throws the brain into chaos by interfering with communication pathways and altering the brain’s basic functions. While under alcohol’s influence, areas of the brain responsible for speech, memory, balance, inhibitions, and reasoning are impaired.

Most of these effects fade for occasional drinkers after sobering up. However, long-term excessive drinking can lead to permanent brain damage to vital areas of the brain.

Alcohol-induced nutrition deficiencies and alcohol-induced seizures can also contribute to the risk of brain damage.

For underage drinkers or young people whose brains are still growing, the effects of alcohol consumption can cause long-lasting alterations to brain development and functions. Memory problems due to alcohol blackouts are another common health risk.

Other risks caused by alcohol’s effect on the brain include:

  • Slowed heart rate
  • Slowed breathing
  • Lower body temperature
  • Affected ability to learn new things
  • Impaired memory
  • Loss of emotional control
  • Dementia
  • Psychosis
  • Coma
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Respiratory System

Drinking high amounts of alcohol can easily lead to lung damage and worsen existing damage. The primary way alcohol affects the lungs is through increased inflammation and decreased levels of nitric oxide in the body.

Inflammation from alcohol abuse is likely to cause injuries in the tissues of the lungs and lead to serious diseases and infections. On the other hand, lower levels of nitric oxide leave the lungs vulnerable to infections from harmful bacteria.

Other risks caused by alcohol’s effect on the respiratory system include:

  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Tuberculosis
  • RSV infection
  • Lung abscesses
  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
  • Sleep apnea
  • Alcoholic lung disease
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • Worsened asthma
  • Respiratory failure

Digestive System

Heavy drinking or binge drinking can have devastating effects on the entire digestive system, starting with damage to the esophagus and larynx. Alcohol can penetrate saliva and damage tissues in the mouth and throat. Mouth and throat cancer is very common with alcohol use disorder.

Once alcohol reaches the stomach and intestine, it can alter the production of bile, cause intense acid reflux, and lead to painful ulcers in the stomach lining. Like the mouth and throat, alcohol can easily damage tissue and worsen inflammation.

Excessive alcoholic beverages also damage the liver and pancreas. Issues with the liver are prevalent with alcohol addiction due to increased inflammation and scarring (cirrhosis). These symptoms can prevent basic liver functions and lead to liver disease and liver failure.

Other risks caused by alcohol’s effect on the digestive system include:

  • Trouble swallowing or pain while swallowing
  • Vomiting
  • Bleeding from the stomach or blood in stool
  • Bacterial overgrowth in the gut
  • Acute and chronic pancreatitis
  • Increased risk of cancer in the mouth, throat, stomach, bowel, liver, pancreas, and intestine

Immune System

Alcohol’s weakening effect on the immune system is caused by how alcoholic drinks negatively affect the gastrointestinal tract and how they impact antibodies. The GI tract is typically the first point of contact with alcohol consumption, and 70% of immune cells are housed in the gut.

As alcohol damages the digestive system, it also damages the immune cells in the gut. Immune system cells like T cells and B cells are instrumental in fighting intruders and preventing infections.

However, alcohol abuse can cause fewer T and B cells in the body, which leaves the immune system weaker.

Other risks caused by alcohol’s effect on the immune system include:

  • Increased risk of serious infection
  • Increased risk of food poisoning
  • More vulnerable to seasonal viruses like flu and COVID-19
  • Slow or incomplete healing of wounds
  • Post-surgery complications
  • Longer recovery time from illness
  • Complications of normally benign illnesses

Circulatory System

Alcohol abuse heightens risk factors for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke due to its effect on the circulatory system. Alcohol can increase hormones that cause arteries to tighten and constrict, leading to high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is a very common effect of alcohol abuse and causes blood to pump with more force than normal through arteries or blood vessels. Over time, this effect puts strain on your heart and can increase the build-up of plaque in blood vessels.

Other risks caused by alcohol’s effect on the circulatory system include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Hypertensive disorder
  • Heart muscle disorders like alcoholic cardiomyopathy
  • Irregular heart rhythms (cardiac arrhythmia)
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Heart failure
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Mental Health

Sadly, many people use alcohol use to cope with mental health struggles, especially depression and anxiety. Alcohol may make you feel better in the moment, but many alcohol users end up with worsened mental health over time.

Alcohol consumption worsens mental health by disrupting sleep patterns and increasing the likelihood of risky behavior or overemotional reactions. In some cases, alcohol use can even worsen thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

Aside from worsening existing mental health issues, excessive drinking also increases your risk of alcohol dependence and addiction, as well as further substance use beyond alcohol.

Other risks caused by alcohol’s effect on mental health include:

  • Unpleasant or dangerous interactions with medications
  • Dysregulation or low levels of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin
  • Violent or risky behaviors
  • Worsened symptoms like depression, anxiety, paranoia, psychosis, or thoughts of self-injury

Cancer

The link between alcohol use and cancer is well established. Alcohol is more likely to cause cancer due to acetaldehyde, a chemical your body breaks alcohol down into. Acetaldehyde can damage the DNA in your cells, increasing your risk of abnormal, cancerous cells forming anywhere in the body.

Alcohol also increases the risk of cancer due to its negative effect on body weight, hormones, the absorption of nutrients, and exposure to other harmful chemicals.

Alcohol use has been known to cause higher risk for the following types of cancer:

  • Liver
  • Pancreas
  • Stomach
  • Colon and rectum
  • Mouth and throat
  • Voice box (larynx)
  • Esophagus
  • Breast (in women)
  • Prostate

Short-Term VS Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Not all effects of alcohol happen right away. Some effects are immediate or short-term, while others take consistent heavy drinking to develop. Sometimes, the effects may be reversible, but many are permanent if not treated quickly enough.

Short-Term Effects

Even for the occasional drinker, the short-term effects of alcohol use can be dangerous due to the impairments in judgment and motor skills. For heavy drinkers, the short-term effects can bring far more severe health impacts.

Common short-term effects of casual alcohol use include:

  • Impaired motor skills and judgment
  • Falls, accidents, and conflicts
  • Motor vehicle crashes
  • Risky behaviors
  • Mood swings
  • Dehydration
  • Vomiting
  • Hangover

Common short-term effects of excessive or heavy drinking include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Slowed breathing
  • Alcohol poisoning, which leads to possible seizures, coma, and death
  • Blacking out
  • Memory issues
  • Issues with sleep
  • Worsened mental health
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in babies
  • Increased risk of heart attack

Long-Term Effects

For infrequent drinkers, the long-term effects of alcohol use are less of a concern. Heavy drinkers or binge drinkers, on the other hand, can develop many serious long-term health issues due to their frequent and excessive alcohol consumption.

Common long-term effects of excessive or heavy drinking include:

  • Memory and learning problems
  • Loss of brain volume in young people
  • Weakened immune system
  • Increased risk of infection and illness
  • Prolonged healing and recovery
  • Weight gain
  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Increased chance of developing cancer
  • Damage to the brain, liver, pancreas, digestive tract, and heart
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Get Treatment for Your Alcohol Problem

Problems with excessive alcohol consumption are quite common, which means there are many treatment options available if you or a loved one are ready to stop drinking. Getting treatment for alcohol addiction is the best way to avoid the dangerous health effects of alcohol abuse.

Talk to your healthcare provider or addiction specialist about the best treatment. You can also look into support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and SMART Recovery for treatment or supplement to treatment.

If you’re not sure what addiction centers are near you, try using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) online treatment locator or call 1-800-662-4357 (HELP) to see what treatment programs are offered where you live.

FAQs About the Effects of Alcohol

What are the long-term effects of alcohol?

There are many serious and even life-threatening long-term effects of alcohol abuse. Common long-term effects include:

  • Weaker immune system
  • Higher risk of infection and sickness
  • Issues with memory and learning new things
  • Loss of brain volume, especially in young people
  • Damage to the brain, heart, pancreas, liver, and digestive tract
  • Significant weight gain
  • Heart disease and liver disease
  • Higher risk of developing cancer

What are the main effects of drinking alcohol?

The main effects of drinking alcohol include:

  • Impaired motor functions and lowered inhibitions
  • High blood pressure
  • Risk of alcohol poisoning
  • Vomiting
  • Dehydration
  • Slowed breathing
  • Disorientation
  • Risk of violence or car accidents
  • Damage to essential organs and impaired bodily functions
  • High risk of liver damage, heart damage, and brain damage
  • Increased risk of heart attack, stroke, or sudden death

How does alcohol affect the brain?

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, making it difficult for the brain to process information and make good decisions. When drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, the effect on the brain can cause depressed breathing and increase the risk of seizures and brain damage.

How does alcohol affect the heart?

Alcohol can cause damage to the heart because it often causes high blood pressure. When blood pressure is high, blood is pumped through the circulatory system with more force, which can lead to cardiovascular disease.

Other common effects heavy alcohol abuse has on the heart include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart muscle disorders such as alcoholic cardiomyopathy
  • Irregular heart rhythms or cardiac arrhythmia
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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