Short- and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol can have serious negative effects on one’s health, both immediately and as a result of chronic use.1,2 In this article, we’ll go over some of the short- and long-term effects of alcohol.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Use
Drinking can cause some desirable effects that include a feeling of relaxation and increased talkativeness and sociability.3 However, as the levels of alcohol increase in the bloodstream, negative physiological effects can arise quickly.
Short-term effects can be physical, mental, and behavioral and can include the following:3,4,5
- Loss of coordination
- Staggering movements
- Involuntary eye movements
- Blurry vision and double vision
- Slowed reaction time
- Reduced ability to focus or think clearly
- Impaired judgment
- Impaired memory
- Mood changes, such as depression
- Slurred speech
- Inability to control impulses
- Inappropriate sexual or aggressive behavior
Even when a person stops drinking, the level of alcohol in their blood can continue to rise as alcohol is processed by the stomach and intestines, and they can become increasingly intoxicated and at risk of overdose.4
What is Alcohol Poisoning?
When a person ingests excessive amounts of alcohol, such as by binge drinking, they may be at risk of overdose. Without medical attention, their basic life-support functions (such as breathing, heart rate, and body temperature) can become impaired and even begin to shut down, which may result in brain damage or even death.4
Signs of an alcohol overdose, often called alcohol poisoning, include:3,4
- Extreme confusion, or stupor.
- Loss of consciousness/inability to wake.
- Clammy skin.
- Blue or pale skin color.
- Very low body temperature.
- Dulled gag reflex (a choking risk).
- Slowed heart rate.
- Very slow or irregular breathing.
If you believe that someone you’re with may have overdosed on alcohol, call 911 immediately and stay with the person until emergency medical crews arrive. Try to keep them on the ground in a sitting or partially upright position to prevent them from vomiting and choking.4
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use
Excessive alcohol use over time can cause a range of serious long-term physical, psychological, and behavioral health problems that include, but are not limited to, the following:1,6
- Negative pregnancy outcomes
- Heart problems, including disease of the heart muscle, stroke, high blood pressure, or irregular heart rhythms, and stroke
- Pancreatitis, a very painful condition caused by inflammation of the blood vessels in the pancreas
- Thiamine (Vitamin B1) deficiency, which can cause a serious degenerative brain disorder
- Weakening or suppression of the immune system
- Cancer (colon, mouth, esophagus, breast, or liver)
- Fatty liver
- Alcoholic hepatitis
- Cirrhosis of the liver
- Increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection
- Problems with learning and cognition
- Issues with memory
- Increased aggression and tendency toward violence
- Increased risk of accidents (e.g., motor vehicle crashes) and injury
Effects of Alcohol on The Heart
A great deal of emphasis has been placed on the so-called cardiovascular benefits of moderate drinking in the media, but there doesn’t seem to be a direct cause-and-effect relationship between moderate alcohol use and heart health. For example, red wine consumed in moderation is often touted as being good for the heart; however, this relationship between alcohol and heart health could be complicated by other factors. For example, red wine drinkers may be more likely to have higher incomes and better access to heart-healthy foods.7,8
Because of the laundry list of potential harms associated with alcohol, someone who doesn’t currently drink should not begin doing so in an attempt to reap any kind of cardiovascular benefit that could be achieved by other means such as eating fruits and vegetables and exercising.7
If you have any existing heart problems, such as arrhythmias (irregular heart rhythms), or you’ve suffered from heart failure, your doctor may advise you to avoid any alcohol.7
Any protective benefits of alcohol on the heart are only linked to small amounts of alcohol, as heavy drinking is associated with risks like heart disease and stroke.1,7
Effects of Alcohol on the Liver
The liver metabolizes alcohol; when alcohol is used excessively, over time it can impede the metabolic functioning of this organ, with deleterious—sometimes fatal—consequences.9
Alcohol-related liver disease is a spectrum of disease typically grouped into three distinct disease entities, which often coexist:9
- Alcohol fatty liver. This refers to fat deposits building up in the liver. This condition may be reversible with a period of abstinence.
- Alcohol-related hepatitis. This condition refers to significant amounts of liver tissue becoming inflamed or destroyed. When scar tissue replaces healthy liver tissue this can cause abdominal pain, fever, and jaundice. While severe cases may be potentially fatal, milder forms are more common. Alcohol-related hepatitis evolves slowly and a person can recover, though it may take many months after abstaining from drinking for a person to recover fully.
- Cirrhosis of the liver. When alcohol-related hepatitis persists, the scar tissue changes the internal structure of the liver, causing severe functional impairment that can lead to liver failure. The damage done by alcohol-related liver cirrhosis typically can’t be reversed and the condition is often fatal, but it can be managed through abstinence.
Signs and symptoms don’t always act as reliable indicators of the presence of alcohol-related liver disease or its severity. The severity of the disease is highly dependent on the amount and duration of alcohol consumed as well as drinking patterns (i.e., chronic or binge).10
Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Alcohol has several significant effects on the brain.
When binge drinking, alcohol can cause immediate dangers such as blackouts and disruptions to crucial life-support functions of the brain (e.g., breathing, heart rate, temperature control). Alcohol use can disrupt communication pathways in the brain in regions involved in:11
This raises the potential for injuries, making serious mistakes or poor decisions that can have lasting or fatal consequences.11
Over time, chronic alcohol use can lead to:2
- Memory problems.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome (WKS) resulting from thiamine deficiency as a result of poor nutrition and malabsorption of nutrients due to alcohol use. WKS can cause long-term physical and mental deterioration, as well as coma and death.12,13,14
Effects of Drinking Alcohol While Pregnant
Despite persistent myths that an occasional drink by a pregnant woman is safe, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has made clear that there is no safe level of alcohol during pregnancy.15 Alcohol use by a pregnant mother can result in serious harm to her baby and increase the risk of stillbirth or sudden infant death syndrome. Prenatal alcohol use can also decrease the likelihood of pregnancy making it to full term.16
Babies whose mothers drink heavily while pregnant may suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which may cause:16
- Abnormal facial features.
- Small head size, low weight, and short stature.
- Sleep problems and problems breastfeeding as infants.
- Problems with attention, learning, memory, and coordination.
- Delayed speech.
- Low IQ.
- Behavior issues (e.g., hyperactivity).
- Problems with reasoning and judgment.
- Problems with hearing and/or vision.
- Heart, bone, or kidney problems.
Many women will consume alcohol prior to knowing they’re pregnant. It’s never too late to stop drinking. If you find out you’re expecting, stopping all alcohol use will help to protect your unborn child.15
Alcohol Rehab in Las Vegas
Desert Hope alcohol rehab in Las Vegas provides a full continuum of care for alcohol use disorders that includes medical detox, inpatient treatment, various levels of outpatient rehab, and sober living.
Our evidence-based treatment approaches (e.g., withdrawal management, behavioral therapies, peer support) can help you or your loved one get sober and remain in long-term recovery.
Frequently Asked Questions about Alcohol Use
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