What Are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol can be an enjoyable part of celebrations and meals when consumed in moderation. However, alcohol, like any intoxicating substance, can be dangerous. Alcohol has a long list of concerning effects, both immediate and long-term.1,2 In this article, we’ll go over some of the short- and long-term effects of alcohol.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

Man having shots

Drinking can cause a bright sensation of well-being and other desirable effects that include a feeling of relaxation and increased talkativeness/sociability.3 However, as the levels of alcohol increase in the bloodstream, negative physiological effects can arise quickly.

Short-term effects of alcohol include:3,4,5

  • Slurred speech.
  • Loss of coordination.
  • Staggering.
  • Involuntary eye movements.
  • Blurry vision and double vision.
  • Slowed reaction time.
  • Reduced ability to focus or think clearly.
  • Impaired judgment.
  • Inability to control impulses.
  • Inappropriate sexual or aggressive behavior.
  • Nausea/vomiting.
  • Impaired memory.
  • Sleepiness.
  • Mood changes, such as depression.
  • Blackouts.

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

Alcohol Overdose

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.
  • Seizures.
  • 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.
  • Coma.

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

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:1,6

  • Problems with learning and memory.
  • Increased aggression and tendency toward violence.
  • Increased risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection.
  • Increased risk of accidents (e.g., motor vehicle crashes) and injury.
  • 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.

Stages of liver disease

Is Alcohol Good for Your 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 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 Drinking during Pregnancy

Pregnant woman with wine

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.9 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 a pregnancy making it to full term.10

Babies whose mothers drink heavily while pregnant may suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which may cause:10

  • 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.9 

Alcohol Dependence

Chronic alcohol use can result in the development of physiological dependence on the substance. This means the body and brain come to rely on alcohol in order to function as expected. Without the normal amount of alcohol, the drinker may go into withdrawal, and unfortunately alcohol has one of the most serious of all substance withdrawal syndromes. While alcohol withdrawal is not dangerous for everyone, it can be for those who regularly drink to excess. And in rare cases, it can be life-threatening. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal may include:3,11

  • Sweating.
  • Rapid pulse.
  • Tremors.
  • Restlessness and pacing or other purposeless movements.
  • Irritability or agitation.
  • Anxiety.
  • Insomnia.
  • Nightmares.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Seizures.
  • Hallucinations.
  • Delusions.
  • Fever.
  • Withdrawal delirium.

Those at risk of severe alcohol withdrawal, such as those who have a long history of heavy drinking or have been through alcohol withdrawal before, may benefit by overcoming their physical dependence on alcohol in a medical detox environment.11

Desert Hope provides this level of care, and we pride ourselves on our commitment to patient safety and comfort. Our detox program includes 24/7 monitoring by nursing staff, medications to increase comfort and prevent severe symptoms, and EarlySense technology that is placed under patient beds to notify us of any complications (such as a significant change in blood pressure) that require immediate care.

Desert Hope also provides a full continuum of care for alcohol use disorders that includes both inpatient and outpatient rehab, so we can help you transition to further treatment after detox without any delay. Call us at to learn more.

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