Alcohol can be an enjoyable part of celebrations and meals when consumed in moderation. Sometimes, however, people binge drink or drink heavily, which can cause changes in brain chemistry or lead to addiction.
Referred to as alcohol use disorder or alcohol abuse, the point at which a person loses control of drinking can cause recognizable physical and psychological effects. Recognizing these effects can help people and their loved ones to determine when casual drinking might have become something more serious that requires alcoholism treatment.
Short-Term Physical and Psychological Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol is a chemical that results from the fermentation of sugars by yeast, as explained by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Also known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol, this product of fermentation is quickly absorbed into the body and interacts with the brain, causing the nervous system to become less excitable. The resulting effects of drinking alcohol include both physical and psychological effects.
- Calming of the nervous system
- Slurred speech
- Reduced motor coordination
- Slowed heart rate
- Reduced ability to focus
- Mood changes
- Reduced inhibition
- Slight memory loss
Effects of Drinking during Pregnancy
- Physical deformities
- Delayed physical and psychological development
- Brain and neurological problems after birth
- Learning disabilities
- Impaired ability to deal with emotions
When Use Becomes Abuse
According to statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 7 percent of adults in the US experience an alcohol use disorder in a given year. However, nearly 25 percent of US adults have at least one binge-drinking event each year. Binge drinking is defined as consuming at least five alcoholic beverages for men or at least four for women in one evening or a similar period of time.
Binge drinking even once can have severe effects on the body. According to the Centers for Disease Control, among other risks, even one occurrence of binge drinking can result in:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Increased risk of physical injury
- Heart or circulation problems
- Memory loss or other loss of brain and nerve function
When an individual engages in binge drinking on a regular basis or drinks heavily over the long-term, chemical changes occur in the brain that are likely to lead to addiction.
Long-Term Physical Effects
When a person binge drinks often or drinks heavily on a regular basis, the effects on the body and brain become more pronounced. In addition, severe illnesses or injuries become more likely. Information on Alcohol’s Effects on the Body from NIAAA describes a large number of potential physical effects, such as:
- Heart disease or problems, such as stroke, high blood pressure, or arrhythmia
- Liver damage or disease
- Pancreatic toxicity and pancreatitis
- Cancer of the mouth, esophagus, throat, breasts, or various organs
- Growth and reddening of the nose and cheeks
- Breathing problems
- Brain and neurological damage leading to severe psychological effects
Psychological Effects of Alcohol Use and Abuse
According to a research analysis presented by NIAAA, the psychological effects of alcohol abuse or alcoholism can include symptoms that appear to resemble:
- Major depression
- Anxiety disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Antisocial behavior
- Blackouts or severe memory loss
- Mood and personality changes
Social Effects of Alcohol Abuse
When drinking becomes a problem, it can have damaging effects on an individual’s personal life, responsibilities, and relationships. Occurrence of these issues, as described by NIAAA in its discussion of alcohol use disorder, can be an important sign that a person is abusing alcohol or may even be alcoholic. Some of these effects include:
- Loss of friendships over drinking
- Lowered desire to participate in activities once enjoyed
- Problems at work or school due to drinking that interfere with responsibilities
- Hostility or violence toward loved ones when inebriated
All of these effects can point toward an alcohol use disorder of some kind. However, it is possible to diminish these effects through medical detox and treatment for alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
Alcohol is an intoxicating substance that is legal in the United States for people aged 21 and older to consume. However, most states regulate safe drinking amounts, with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher being considered too drunk to drive; some states are considering changing that regulation to 0.05 BAC. Although alcohol is a legal intoxicant, binge drinking, excessive drinking, and alcohol use disorder are prevalent. The Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey in 2013 found that 17 percent of the US adult population self-reported binge drinking, and 6 percent reported heavy drinking.
Why does drinking alcohol make your skin flushed or red?
When a person’s face flushes, turns red, or develops red blotches when they drink, the condition is called alcohol flush reaction (AFR). The condition is genetic, and scientists currently believe the cause is an enzyme disorder in the liver; that organ is not as capable of breaking down the oxidized version of alcohol, acetaldehyde. For people without AFR, the liver breaks acetaldehyde into acetate; people with AFR, however, do not break acetaldehyde down as easily, so the chemical builds up in the blood. This leads to dilated blood vessels, causing the skin, especially in the face, to turn red.
Other symptoms of AFR include:
- Flushing in the neck or body
- Rapid heart rate
Many people with AFR experience these symptoms after just one drink.
Why does drunkenness cause double vision?
Double vision is the colloquial term for diplopia. In broad medical terms, it can affect one eye or both eyes; when a person drinks too much, they may experience diplopia because the signals from both eyes to the brain are not synced properly in the mind. If a drunk person covers one eye, they are likely to stop experiencing diplopia. The brain’s processing speed slows down because of alcohol consumption and due to other recreational drugs, and this reduces the brain’s ability to process information from the eyes. The eyes are also less able to track the person’s surroundings.
What is an alcohol blackout?
Alcohol can affect the brain’s ability to form new memories, so when a person drinks too much, their brain may not form memories of the event after a certain point. When intoxication wears off, the person may not remember events like how much they drank and how they got home.
When a person consumes alcohol, it can affect the transfer from short-term memory to long-term memory. For example, someone who is very drunk may remember what happened to them five minutes before; however, the next day, when the effects of intoxication have gone away, they may not remember that specific event anymore. That is because the event was not moved from short-term memory to long-term memory.
A blackout specifically refers to a long period of time, like several hours, during which a person can participate in the world around them but form no memories of this engagement. This is a form of substance-induced amnesia.
What are the signs of cirrhosis?
Cirrhosis is extensive damage of liver tissue, leading to liver toxicity and failure. One of the causes of cirrhosis is alcohol use disorder, including consistent binge drinking, heavy drinking, or physical dependence on alcohol. There are few early symptoms of cirrhosis, and those that do occur may appear similar to a hangover or other minor medical condition.
- Fatigue, drowsiness, or consistent exhaustion regardless of sleep
- Bleeding easily or not clotting quickly
- Bruising easily or not healing as quickly
- Itchy skin
- Breast enlargement in men
- Redness on the palms of the hands
- Swelling, especially in the legs
- Fluid accumulation in the abdomen
- Loss of appetite and corresponding weight loss
- Nausea and vomiting
- Confusion or cognitive difficulty
- Slurred speech and other symptoms of being drunk without drinking (hepatic encephalopathy)
- Spider veins, or spider-like blood vessels appearing on the skin, often on the face
- Jaundice, or the yellowing of skin and eyes as the liver fails to process toxins
What is wet brain?
The term wet brain refers to a serious medical condition, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can damage the brains of people who struggle with alcohol use disorder for a long time. Wet brain is a combination of two conditions, which ultimately make each other worse: Wernicke’s encephalopathy, and Korsakoff syndrome.
Alcohol abuse is one cause of a reduced amount of vitamin B1, or thiamine, in the body. When thiamine is not available to the brain for a long time, the brain develops Wernicke’s encephalopathy, Korsakoff syndrome, or both. For most people suffering from wet brain, Wernicke’s encephalopathy develops first, followed by Korsakoff syndrome; however, this is not always the case, and a person with alcohol use disorder may develop one without the other.
Symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include:
- Reduced cognitive ability
- Abnormal eye movements back and forth (nystagmus)
- Double vision
- Eyelid drooping
- Loss of muscle coordination, most often in the legs first
- Leg tremor
- Reduced mental function leading to coma or death
People who develop Wernicke’s encephalopathy can overcome this condition or at least reduce the severity of symptoms if they stop consuming alcohol.
Symptoms of Korsakoff syndrome, sometimes called Korsakoff psychosis, include:
- Inability to form new memories
- Memory loss, appearing like dementia
- Confabulation, or making up stories, usually to fill in memory gaps
About 25 percent of people who develop Korsakoff psychosis spontaneously recover, and no one is totally sure why. However, the best way to mitigate this condition is by quitting alcohol consumption under medical supervision.
Treatment to overcome Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome includes emergency hospitalization and intravenous administration of thiamine.