Substance Use

Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse Explained

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Alcohol is an addictive substance that many people use for several reasons. While some think it’s just a social drink, others use alcohol to cope with their problems. This can lead to addiction and adverse effects on the body and brain.

In this post, we talk about what happens when someone has an alcohol addiction and the negative impact it can have on the brain and body.

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What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol addiction affects millions of people worldwide, causing them to lose control over their drinking habits. Alcohol addiction is characterized by continued use of alcohol despite the harmful effects on a person’s life. (1)

This often leads to physical dependence, which means that once someone stops consuming alcohol altogether after years of regular use, their body goes into shock initially. Because of these reasons, most treatment clinics usually advise users not to quit cold turkey but instead undergo medical detoxification procedures.

Alcohol is addictive because it activates the reward system in the user’s brain. (2) This means that once consumed, alcohol triggers chemical reactions inside a person’s body, which produce pleasurable feelings and sensations.

People who drink regularly often develop tolerance levels to alcohol over time, meaning they need more of it to reach the same level of satisfaction or ‘high.’ (3)

There are many physical symptoms of alcohol addiction and abuse, some of which include: (4)

  • Dry mouth
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Poor coordination or balance
  • Stomach pain, constipation, or diarrhea
  • Dry eyes
  • Excessive perspiration (especially during the withdrawal stage)
  • Low body temperature
  • Shaking/tremors in different parts of the body, e.g., hands, etc.
  • Loss of appetite

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

  • Impaired Judgment: Alcohol affects decision-making, leading to impaired judgment and risky behaviors. (5)
  • Coordination Issues: Motor skills and coordination are compromised, increasing the risk of accidents.
  • Mood Changes: Alcohol can alter mood, causing swings between euphoria, aggression, or depressive states.
  • Slurred Speech: Speech becomes slurred, making communication difficult.
  • Nausea and Vomiting: Alcohol irritates the stomach lining, leading to nausea and vomiting.
  • Drowsiness and Fatigue:Alcohol acts as a depressant, causing drowsiness and fatigue.
  • Memory Impairment: Blackouts or memory lapses may occur, affecting the recall of events.
  • Breathing Problems: Excessive alcohol intake can suppress the respiratory system, leading to breathing difficulties.
  • Alcohol Poisoning: In severe cases, alcohol poisoning can occur, causing a dangerous drop in body functions, and requiring immediate medical attention.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

  • Chronic Diseases: Any amount of alcohol contributes to chronic conditions such as liver disease, cardiovascular issues, and pancreatitis.
  • Irreversible Damage: Long-term alcohol abuse can cause irreversible damage to the liver, leading to cirrhosis.
  • Addiction Development: Prolonged alcohol use increases the risk of developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), leading to addiction.
  • Neurological Impairment: Alcohol can damage the brain, leading to cognitive impairment and memory loss.
  • Weakened Immune System: Chronic alcohol use weakens the immune system, increasing susceptibility to infections.
  • Increased Risk of Cancer: Long-term alcohol consumption is linked to an elevated risk of developing various cancers.
  • Social and Relationship Issues: Persistent alcohol abuse and substance use can strain relationships and lead to social isolation.
  • Financial Consequences: Alcohol addiction may result in financial difficulties due to ongoing expenses related to alcohol consumption.
  • Decreased Quality of Life: Long-term alcohol abuse often leads to a decreased overall quality of life, impacting physical and mental well-being.

Physical Effects of Alcohol on the Body

The physical effects of alcohol are many. These health risks depend on how much a person drinks and their age, weight, genetic history, etc.

Physical effects of alcohol abuse may include:

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis is a severe and potentially life-threatening condition resulting from prolonged and excessive alcohol consumption or binge drinking. (6) This liver inflammation occurs when the liver, a vital organ responsible for processing toxins, becomes inflamed due to the toxic effects of alcohol.

Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include jaundice, abdominal pain, nausea, and a swollen abdomen. If left untreated, alcoholic hepatitis can progress to more severe liver conditions, such as cirrhosis or liver failure. (7)

Fatty Liver Disease

Fatty liver disease, also known as alcoholic steatosis, is a condition characterized by the accumulation of fat in liver cells due to prolonged alcohol abuse. (8) As individuals consume alcohol, the liver prioritizes alcohol metabolism, leading to the accumulation of fat within the liver.

This condition often develops without noticeable symptoms initially, making it challenging to detect in its early stages.

Over time, fatty liver disease can progress to more severe conditions such as alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis. (9) The presence of excess fat compromises liver function, impacting its ability to process nutrients and perform essential metabolic functions. Resulting in liver damage.

Cirrhosis of the Liver

Cirrhosis of the liver is one such effect that can be brought about by excessive ethanol consumption over time. The liver will stop functioning correctly if it has been constantly exposed to large amounts of alcohol, leading to permanent damage that results in scar tissue being formed.

Liver disease is a very serious illness that can become life-threatening and turn into liver cancer. (10)

Gastritis and Stomach Ulcers

Too much alcohol can also lead to gastritis and ulcers, which are inflammations of the stomach lining. Chronic alcohol consumption will cause damage to this vital organ over a period of time, resulting in severe health issues if not addressed immediately. (11)

Excessive ethanol consumption can also lead to colitis, gastritis, and other gastrointestinal issues because of the damage that it causes to the lining of one’s digestive tract.

Damage to the Pancreas

Chronic ethanol abuse can also cause pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas, often resulting in severe damage to this vital organ. If pancreatitis is left untreated, it can lead to death. (12)

Cardiovascular Problems

Heart failure or heart disease is another effect of ethanol abuse over time which causes the heart to stop working effectively because it has been exposed to so much alcohol that its ability to pump blood around the body becomes compromised. It’s also said that excessive drinking can lead to a heart attack or more serious risks. (13)

Impact on the Central Nervous System

Excessive alcohol consumption profoundly affects the central nervous system, leading to disruptions in cognitive function, coordination, and emotional regulation.

This can result in:

  • Impaired judgment
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Memory lapses that impact daily activities and overall well-being (14)

These symptoms are closely related to the symptoms of brain damage.

Weakened Immune System

Consistent alcohol abuse weakens the immune system, making the body more susceptible to infections and illnesses. This compromised immune response can lead to increased vulnerability to various diseases and difficulties in recovering from common ailments. (15)

Muscle Weakness and Atrophy

Alcohol has a direct impact on muscle health, contributing to weakness and atrophy over time. Chronic alcohol use and heavy drinking can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, affecting overall strength and physical performance, and leading to serious medical conditions. (16)

Increased Risk of Accidents and Injuries

Alcohol impairs coordination, judgment, and reaction times, significantly increasing the risk of accidents and injuries. Individuals under the influence of alcohol are more prone to falls, car crashes, and other mishaps that can result in serious physical harm.

Sexual Dysfunction and Fertility Issues

Alcohol can interfere with sexual function, leading to issues such as erectile dysfunction and diminished libido. Additionally, chronic alcohol use may contribute to fertility problems, affecting both men and women and making conception more challenging. 

These physical effects underscore the importance of moderation and awareness when it comes to alcohol consumption.

Psychological and Mental Health Effects

Alcohol addiction and abuse over time affect the brain as well. The longer a person consumes alcohol, especially in high amounts or daily, the more damage it does to their body and mind. Some of these effects include:

Increased Depression, Anxiety, Mental Health Conditions, and Suicide Risk

Depression and anxiety are other effects of alcoholism that manifest themselves.

When a person has been drinking alcohol for many years, especially daily or in high amounts, it can cause them to feel extremely depressed and anxious about things that were never an issue before. This ultimately leads to mental health problems. (17)

In such cases, psychological therapy is usually needed to help someone regain self-confidence and overcome the root causes of their depression/anxiety, etc.

Memory and Cognitive Deficits

Cognitive problems like decision-making become impaired because of changes in thought processes because of chemical imbalances induced by ethanol consumption. Other cognitive issues related to prolonged alcohol abuse include problems with memory and reasoning. (18)

Impaired Judgment and Decision-Making

Another effect of alcohol addiction may cause people who drink chronically to experience problems with their ability to concentrate on tasks because they cannot think clearly anymore because of excessive alcohol use.

Problem-solving is another mental function that gets affected when a person has been drinking alcohol for extended periods. They find it difficult to resolve issues and develop new ideas or solutions that may not have been present before they started consuming large amounts of ethanol.

Mood Swings and Irritability

When a person has been drinking alcohol for years on end, their brain chemistry changes, affecting how they feel about certain things or people around them.

Alcohol abuse can cause several emotional issues and side effects, including mood swings that are out of regular character for an individual, e.g., sudden silence during conversations, which usually indicates deeper-rooted psychological issues stemming from alcoholism. (19)

Most times, these effects do not go away once someone stops consuming large amounts of alcohol but continue even after several months/years have passed.

Sleep Disturbances and Insomnia

Abusing alcohol also alters sleep patterns over time. People who drink large amounts of ethanol daily often find that they need more sleep than usual which can be attributed to the depressive effects caused by chronic exposure to this substance. 

Alcohol addiction can also lead to insomnia in young people if not enough rest is achieved during sleeping hours. (20)

Decreased Motivation and Productivity

Alcohol abuse also affects people’s minds by causing a loss of drive and ambition, making it difficult for them to function normally in society, such as getting up early in the morning, going out into public places, and exercising.

This lack of ability often leads to emotional issues since individuals who cannot hold on to a job or maintain relationships with friends and family for years on end become depressed.

Alcohol-Induced Psychosis

Alcohol-induced psychosis is a serious alcohol-related mental health condition triggered by excessive alcohol consumption. (21) (22) This condition manifests in the form of hallucinations, delusions, and impaired cognitive function.

Individuals experiencing alcohol-induced psychosis may lose touch with reality, exhibit erratic behavior, and experience intense paranoia.

The consumption of large quantities of alcohol disrupts the brain’s neurotransmitter balance, leading to these severe mental health symptoms. The onset of alcohol-induced psychosis is often unpredictable and can occur after binge drinking episodes or prolonged alcohol dependence.

The Societal Impact of Alcohol Addiction

Those who live with or are close to an alcoholic can also suffer from the effects of alcohol addiction because it places a significant strain on their lives and relationships. It often leads to financial problems, broken homes, and other issues because of the addict’s inability to function effectively in society.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol addiction can be treated through various rehabilitation programs that provide effective withdrawal management and detoxification.

Alcoholism treatment is very effective if appropriately undergone because it helps to reduce or eliminate the risk of relapse. As a result, one should not feel discouraged about their chances of success during recovery. They are dedicated to achieving sobriety before attempting to drink again without suffering from any consequences.

The alcohol detox process includes:

  • Medical supervision and assistance from health professionals to manage withdrawal symptoms
  • A medical detox program that is designed for individuals suffering from alcohol addiction. This can be completed in an outpatient or residential healthcare setting, depending on the severity of one’s condition.
  • Psychological support is provided by trained professionals who will help clients cope with cravings, triggers, and other barriers during their journey toward sobriety.

These treatment therapies are very effective because they provide psychiatric care that helps people learn how to avoid drugs and alcohol while also improving mental health conditions that can lead to relapses, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

Beyond the Bottle: Get Help Today

Alcohol addiction is a severe condition that can lead to various health issues when consumed excessively. The physical effects of chronic alcohol abuse may vary depending on how much ethanol one ingests and which areas of the body are affected.

However, the long-term effects it has on both body and brain can be devastating. This is why it is important to stop drinking as soon as possible or lower the level of alcohol.

Various treatment therapies can help to reduce or eliminate risk factors, and the chance of developing more severe health conditions when choosing to attend an addiction recovery center and seek medical support. Call Zinnia Health on our alcohol hotline available 24 hours per day at (855) 430-9439 for more information.


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