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Updated on September 28, 2021

How Does Alcohol Impact Your Physical Health?

The physical effects of alcohol can range from normal and harmless to dangerous and potentially fatal. It depends on your drinking habits, the amount of alcohol you consume regularly, and how long you’ve been drinking.

  • The short-term effects of alcohol use occur shortly after drinking, although they can last for several hours.
  • The long-term effects of alcohol are caused by persistent unhealthy drinking patterns such as alcoholism.

Drinking alcohol in excess amounts, and for a long time, can be detrimental to your health. In particular, alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD) can lead to a variety of severe health conditions over time. These health risks include – but are not limited to – liver injuries, gastrointestinal infections, cardiovascular problems, and certain cancers.

Drinking too much alcohol may also cause short-term physical effects such as hangovers and intoxication. In rare cases, it can lead to alcohol poisoning and possible death.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Consumption

When taking your first sip of alcohol, some of it is absorbed under the tongue and the mucosal lining of your mouth. The rest goes directly into your bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine.

Since alcohol is quickly absorbed, it causes immediate effects on the body. They can appear within minutes after you drink alcohol and last for several hours. The effects of alcohol will depend on:

  • How quickly you drink alcohol
  • Your weight and sex
  • Whether or not you have eaten

They will also depend on your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and the amount of alcohol consumed. In most U.S. states, alcohol intoxication is legally defined as having a BAC of 0.08% or higher.

After 1 to 2 Drinks (0.01 to 0.05 BAC)

  • Relaxation
  • A positive sense of well-being
  • Lowered social inhibitions
  • Decreased alertness
  • Impaired judgment

After 2 to 3 Drinks (0.06 to 0.10 BAC)

  • Feelings of pleasure
  • Numbness
  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Emotional arousal
  • Poor memory
  • Impaired fine motor skills

After 3 to 4 Drinks (0.11 to 0.20 BAC)

  • Mood swings
  • Feelings of anger
  • Sadness
  • Hyperactivity
  • Inappropriate social behavior

After 4 to 6 Drinks (0.21 to 0.30 BAC)

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Decreased physical sensations
  • Depression
  • Stupor
  • Inability to focus one’s gaze
  • Impaired reasoning
  • Inaccurate depth perception

After More Than 6 Drinks (0.31 to 0.40 BAC)

  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty balancing

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Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use Disorder

Excessive drinking habits will eventually lead to alcohol use disorders, also known as alcohol abuse or addiction. These habits include:

  • Heavy drinking - or an alcohol consumption of more than 4 drinks per day or 14 drinks per week in men; or more than 3 drinks per day or 7 drinks per week in women.
  • Binge drinking - or an alcohol consumption of 5 or more drinks in men, or 4 or more drinks in women on a single occasion.

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a chronic disease that results in a strong, uncontrollable urge to drink. Prolonged alcohol misuse is associated with numerous health conditions. Many of these are serious health problems with irreversible, long-term effects.

Long-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Use

The following long-term health risks are associated with alcohol use disorder:

Liver Disease

Prolonged excessive alcohol use may cause three types of liver disease. This includes steatosis (fatty liver), cirrhosis, and alcohol-related hepatitis. All of these diseases disrupt liver function, resulting in serious damage to the body over time. 

  • Steatosis (Fatty Liver) – occurs when fat builds up in the liver due to long-term alcohol consumption or obesity. It is the most common type of liver injury diagnosed in heavy drinkers. Common symptoms include frequent abdominal pain, sudden weight loss, and fatigue. Fatty liver cannot be cured, but the disease can progress to cirrhosis. 
  • Alcoholic Hepatitis – binge drinking and consuming alcohol excessively for many years can lead to alcoholic hepatitis. It occurs due to fat build-up in your liver cells, which causes scarring and extreme inflammation. Up to 35 percent of alcoholics develop hepatitis. 
  • Cirrhosis – most heavy drinkers develop steatosis. However, 10 to 20 percent of alcoholics develop cirrhosis, which is the most severe form of liver disease. The reason is unclear, but it is often linked to drinking patterns, body weight, type II diabetes, gender, and/or genetics. Cirrhosis leads to scarring, yellow skin (jaundice), abdominal swelling, and possibly liver failure (death). 

Women have a higher risk of developing alcohol-induced liver injuries than men. 

Cardiovascular Problems

Immediately after drinking alcohol, your heart rate and blood pressure will rise. However, once the substance is out of your system, your vital signs will return to normal. Excessive alcohol consumption is more dangerous because it causes an irregular heartbeat and weakens your heart muscles over time.

People who drink alcohol excessively are at higher risk for:

  • A heart attack
  • Developing an enlarged heart, which can lead to other problems, such as a stroke
  • Heart failure and death
Gastrointestinal Infections

Alcohol irritates the gastrointestinal tract (digestive system). It causes the stomach to produce extra acid, leading to inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis). In addition, you may experience: 

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Heartburn
  • Peptic Ulcers
  • Stomatitis 
Alcohol-Related Cancers

Excessive alcohol use increases your risk of developing certain cancers.

  • Oral Cancer a type of cancer that begins with the growth of abnormal carcinoma cells. Over time, oral lesions (mouth sores) develop. The cancerous lesions can form anywhere in your mouth, including the palate, throat, sinuses, lips, gums, cheeks, or tongue. About 8,000 people die from oral cancer in the U.S. every year.
  • Laryngeal Cancer – affects the voice box, which contains vocal cords and aids in breathing. Alcohol and tobacco abuse are the leading causes. This disease is more commonly diagnosed in older people than younger people. Voice changes, neck swelling, and difficulty swallowing are common symptoms. 
  • Esophageal Cancer – affects the food pipe that connects to your stomach. Tobacco is the main cause, but long-term alcohol abuse also increases your risk. Symptoms include chest pain, heartburn, hoarseness, and frequent coughing.
  • Colon Cancer – affects the lower end of your digestive tract. Symptoms include changes in bowel movements, blood in the stool, and abdominal pain. Men are more likely to develop colon cancer than women, but both are equally at risk if they misuse alcohol throughout life.
  • Liver Cancer – excessive alcohol use damages your liver, which leads to scarring and inflammation. Over time, liver injuries can develop into cancer. While alcohol increases your risk of liver cancer, hepatitis B and C are the leading causes. 
  • Breast Cancer – alcohol consumption, even in small amounts, has been found to increase its risk in women. One possible reason is that alcohol increases estrogen levels.

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Other Physical Effects of Alcohol


In addition to intoxication, drinking too much alcohol may cause other physical effects, including:

Hangover


A hangover is a set of symptoms that occur as a consequence of heavy drinking. They include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Sweating
  • Weakness
  • Dehydration
  • Stomach pain
  • Vertigo
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Increased blood pressure

The physical effects of a hangover will appear as soon as your blood alcohol concentrations return to zero. They can last anywhere within 24 hours or longer.

Binge Drinking and Its Effects on Your Body

Binge drinking is when a person consumes a large amount of alcohol in one sitting. Unlike alcoholics, binge drinkers may drink heavily on the weekends but can get through the week without a drink. This form of drinking still has harmful side effects and can lead to an alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time. 

The effects of binge drinking are similar to intoxication levels ranging from moderate to severe. These include:

  • Not being able to concentrate
  • Delayed reactions and an impaired sense of time
  • Poor coordination, such as falling over
  • Memory issues
  • Poor judgment
  • Bad decision making
  • Increased risk for injuries

If you consume enough alcohol to raise your blood alcohol content to .08 or higher in a short amount of time, it is considered binge drinking. 

-The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 

Alcohol Poisoning

Binge drinking is the primary cause of alcohol poisoning (overdose). Thus, alcohol poisoning can happen if you drink large amounts of alcohol in a short time. Since many people who drink don’t know their limits, an overdose can occur without warning. 

The physical effects of alcohol poisoning are similar to severe intoxication. However, alcohol overdose can also cause:

  • Difficulty remaining conscious (stupor)
  • Inability to wake up (coma)
  • Breathing difficulties (such as pauses of 10 or more seconds between breaths)
  • Slow breathing (e.g., less than 8 breaths per minute)
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Pale, clammy, or blue-tinged skin
  • Dulled responses (e.g., loss of gag reflex)
  • A decrease in body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia
  • Blackouts
  • Extreme confusion and dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures
  • Kidney failure
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Possible death

Alcohol poisoning results in about 2,200 deaths in the U.S. each year (six per day).

Treatment Options for Alcohol Abuse & Addiction

  • Inpatient Programs — Inpatient treatment is the most intensive and effective option for alcohol addiction treatment. These programs usually last 30, 60, or 90 days, however they may be longer in certain cases. Throughout the duration of an inpatient program you will live on site in a safe, substance-free environment. You will go through medically supervised detoxification first, then behavioral therapy and other services will be added to your regimen. Many of these treatment programs will assist you with an aftercare program afterwards.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHPs) PHPs are the second most intensive alcohol addiction programs. They are sometimes referred to as intensive outpatient programs (IOPs). Partial hospitalization programs provide comparable services to inpatient programs. These may include detoxification, medical services, behavioral therapy, support groups, and other holistic or custom treatments. The main difference between PHPs and inpatient programs is that in a partial hospitalization program, you return home and sleep at your house. Some PHPs provide food and transportation, but this varies by program. PHPs are ideal for new patients, as well as patients who have completed an inpatient program and still require intensive treatment.
  • Outpatient Programs Outpatient programs are less intensive than inpatient programs and PHPs. They are best for people who are highly motivated to achieve sobriety and have responsibilities at work, home, or school. Outpatient treatment programs customize your treatment sessions around your personal schedule. Outpatient programs can help new patients achieve success. They may also be a part of aftercare programs once a patient completes an inpatient program or PHP.
  • Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) Certain patients will qualify for medication-assisted therapy. Some medications can assist you throughout detoxification and withdrawal. Others can reduce cravings and normalize your bodily functions. Disulfiram (Antabuse), acamprosate (Campral), and naltrexone (Revia and Vivitrol) are the most common medications used to treat Alcohol Use Disorder. MAT can help prevent relapse and increase your chance of recovery if combined with other therapies.
  • Support Groups Support groups are peer-led organizations made of people dedicated to helping each other stay sober. They can be a first step towards sobriety or a component of an aftercare plan. Many of these programs follow the 12-step approach.

Address Your Addiction

Don't let addiction control you. Give yourself the power to get help for your addiction today.

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Resources

MORE
LESS

Alcohol and Cancer.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 July 2019.

Alcohol-Related Liver Disease And Alcohol Damage - ALF.” American Liver Foundation.

Alcohol Use and Cancer.” American Cancer Society.

Barclay, G. A., et al. “Adverse Physical Effects of Alcohol Misuse.” Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, vol. 14, no. 2, 2008, pp. 139–151., doi:10.1192/apt.bp.105.001263.

Content: The Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Estimates the Degree of Intoxication.” Duke University.

Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

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