Updated on February 6, 2024
9 min read

The Physical Effects of Alcohol on Your Body

The physical effects of alcohol can range from mild to severe. It can potentially be fatal depending on your drinking habits, how long you've been drinking, and how frequently you drink.

Alcohol can have short-term or immediate side effects. These usually occur shortly after drinking and can last for several hours. On the other hand, the long-term effects can lead to physical health problems and complications such as alcohol dependence and addiction.

In this blog article, we discuss what happens to your body when you misuse alcohol and the signs of withdrawal you should watch out for.

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Can You Get Alcohol Poisoning from Binge Drinking?

Alcohol poisoning (overdose) can happen if you drink large amounts of alcohol quickly. Because 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 ten or more seconds between breaths)
  • Slow breathing (e.g., less than eight 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

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome

Heavy drinkers who suddenly stop or reduce their alcohol intake will experience mild withdrawal symptoms within 6 hours after their last drink. These symptoms will persist for up to seven days.

You can also experience more severe symptoms that gradually fade after days or weeks. Alcohol withdrawal happens because your body is reacting to the lack of alcohol in its system.

Severe withdrawal symptoms might include any combination of the following:

  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Elevated heart rate or blood pressure
  • Sweating
  • Irritability and confusion
  • Insomnia and nightmares
  • Tactile, auditory, or visual hallucinations

If you or someone you know is experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, reach out to emergency services to receive immediate treatment.

What is Delirium Tremens (DT)?

Delirium Tremens (DT) might occur among alcoholics in severe cases. DTs usually start 48 to 72 hours after a person’s last drink and include:

  • Extreme confusion or agitation
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Tactile, auditory, or visual hallucinations
  • Racing heart
  • High blood pressure
  • Heavy sweating

DT is potentially fatal. If you or a loved one experiences these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

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Excessive Drinking Leading to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

Excessive drinking eventually leads to AUD, a chronic disease resulting in a strong, uncontrollable urge to drink. The disease is associated with numerous health conditions that are serious and potentially irreversible.

AUD typically occurs in people who have excessive drinking habits, which include:

  • Heavy drinking: Drinking more than four drinks per day or fourteen drinks per week for men and drinking more than three drinks per day or seven drinks per week for women.
  • Binge drinking: Drinking five or more drinks for men or four or more drinks for women on a single occasion.

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What Are the Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Use?

Alcohol is quickly absorbed under the tongue and the mucosal lining of your mouth. The rest goes into your bloodstream through the stomach and small intestine.

Because your body quickly absorbs alcohol, it causes some immediate side effects. Some factors that affect how alcohol affects you include:

  • How quickly you drink alcohol
  • Your weight and sex
  • Whether or not you have eaten
  • The amount of alcohol you've consumed
  • The alcohol by volume (ABV)

The physical effects of alcohol consumption will also depend on your blood alcohol content (BAC). In most U.S. states, alcohol intoxication is legally defined as having a BAC of 0.08% or higher.

Listed below are the expected effects of alcohol use after every number of drinks:

After One to Two drinks (0.01 to 0.05 BAC)

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

After Two to Three Drinks (0.06 to 0.10 BAC)

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

After Three to Four Drinks (0.11 to 0.20 BAC)

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

After Four to Six 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 Six Drinks (0.31 to 0.40 BAC)

  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Difficulty balancing

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

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Use?

Prolonged alcohol use can lead to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. This can weaken your immune system and increase your risk for long-term health complications.

Long-term effects of alcohol use include:

Changes in Physical Appearance

Aside from various health complications and conditions, alcohol can change your physical appearance. These include the following:

  • Strong odor
  • Alcoholic nose
  • Beer belly
  • Bloating
  • Dry or wrinkled skin
  • Dry or thinning hair

Liver Disease

Prolonged excessive alcohol use may cause three types of liver disease. This includes:

  • Steatosis (fatty liver): An irreversible injury common among heavy drinkers; symptoms include abdominal pain, sudden weight loss, and fatigue.
  • Cirrhosis: The most severe form of liver disease that causes scarring, yellow skin (jaundice), abdominal swelling, and possibly liver failure (death).
  • Alcoholic hepatitis: Occurs due to fat build-up in your liver cells, causing scarring and extreme inflammation.

These diseases disrupt liver function, causing serious damage to the body over time. Notably, women have a higher risk of developing alcohol-induced liver injuries than men.

Cardiovascular Problems

Excessive alcohol consumption causes an irregular heartbeat and weakens your heart muscles over time. People who excessively drink alcohol are at higher risk for:

  • A heart attack
  • Heart disease
  • An enlarged heart (leading 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 stomach lining inflammation (gastritis).

You may also develop other symptoms, which include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Constipation
  • Heartburn
  • Peptic ulcers
  • Stomatitis

Pregnancy Complications

Drinking alcohol while pregnant can cause birth defects and developmental disabilities. These conditions are collectively called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).

Long-term drinking can also cause pregnancy problems, such as:

  • Miscarriage
  • Stillbirth
  • Prematurity

There is no safe level of alcohol use during pregnancy. Because of this, you should avoid all kinds of alcohol while pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

Brain Damage

Heavy alcohol use has been associated with severe changes in the brain. Alcohol produces chemical imbalances in specific neurocircuits, which can be neurotoxic.

Drinking beer or wine daily can also reduce brain size and structure. It also increases your risk of developing mental health disorders. These changes can lead to problems, such as:

  • Brain damage
  • Memory problems
  • Decision-making problems
  • Impulse-control problems
  • Attention problems
  • Sleep disorders

Alcohol's effects on the brain are especially harmful to young people because their brains are still developing.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence can make you feel unable to function or survive without alcohol. People dependent on alcohol also tend to build a tolerance for it, which causes them to drink more to get the same effect of intoxication. Unfortunately, satisfying these cravings increases the risk of alcohol poisoning.

People with alcohol dependence will continue drinking despite the negative side effects. This can lead to:

  • Poor work or school performance
  • Familial problems
  • Financial problems
  • Social problems
  • Legal troubles

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Excessive Drinking Leading to Alcohol-Related Cancers

Besides long-term health complications, 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. About 8,000 people die from oral cancer in the U.S. every year.

The cancerous lesions can form anywhere in your mouth, including:

  • Palate
  • Throat
  • Sinuses
  • Lips
  • Gums
  • Cheeks
  • Tongue

Laryngeal Cancer

Laryngeal cancer affects the voice box, which contains vocal cords and aids in breathing. Alcohol and tobacco abuse are the leading causes of this cancer.

This disease is more commonly diagnosed in older people than younger people. Common symptoms include:

  • Voice changes
  • Neck swelling
  • Difficulty swallowing

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer affects the food pipe that connects to your stomach. Tobacco is the main cause, but long-term alcohol abuse can also increase the risk.

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Heartburn
  • Hoarseness
  • Frequent coughing

Colon Cancer

Colon cancer affects the lower end of your digestive tract. Men are more likely to develop colon cancer than women, but both are equally at risk if they misuse alcohol throughout life.

Symptoms include:

  • Changes in bowel movements
  • Bloody stool
  • Abdominal pain

Liver Cancer

Over time, liver injuries can develop into cancer. Although the leading causes of liver cancer are hepatitis B and C, excessive alcohol use can also increase your risk.

Breast Cancer

Alcohol consumption has been found to increase a woman's risk of breast cancer, even in small amounts. One possible reason is that alcohol increases estrogen levels.

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. It can lead to harmful side effects and increase the risk of developing 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

Frequent and prolonged excessive alcohol use can be detrimental to your health. It can lead to AUD alongside various health conditions.

What Happens to Your Body When You Drink?

When alcohol enters your body, your brain’s communication pathways are altered, which can alter your mood and behavior. In addition to intoxication, drinking too much alcohol may cause hangover symptoms, which 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 content (BAC) returns to zero. They can last anywhere within 24 hours or longer.

Generally, these symptoms are short-lived, but they may worsen or lead to long-term complications.

Summary

Drinking too much alcohol can lead to short-term side effects such as memory problems or blacking out. However, long-term alcohol use can lead to dangerous and potentially fatal effects, such as Delirium Tremens (DT).

Among the many health complications of long-term alcohol use is the increased risk of alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder (AUD). This can lead to severe withdrawal symptoms requiring medical treatment.

If you or someone you know is experiencing withdrawal symptoms from long-term alcohol use, seek medical attention or professional treatment immediately. Getting proper help can set you on the right path to recovery.

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Updated on February 6, 2024

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