The Physical Effects of Alcohol

Binge drinking, addiction, and alcohol poisoning are all detrimental to an individual's health. Risk factors include liver injuries, gastrointestinal infections, cardiovascular problems, and certain cancers. Read more here.
Evidence Based
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How Does Alcohol Impact Your Physical Health? 

The physical effects of alcohol can be detrimental to your health. In particular, alcohol misuse and alcohol use disorder (AUD) can lead to a variety of serious health complications over time. These risks include – but are not limited to – liver injuries, gastrointestinal infections, cardiovascular problems, and certain cancers. 

Additionally, binge drinking and alcohol poisoning cause temporary physical changes that increase your risk for injury, and in rare cases, death. 

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Health Risks of Long-Term Alcohol Use

The following health risks are associated with alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is a chronic disease that results in a strong, uncontrollable need to drink:

Liver Disease

Consuming alcohol excessively, and for an extended period, contributes to three types of liver disease. This includes steatosis (fatty liver), cirrhosis, and alcoholic hepatitis. All of these diseases disrupt liver function, resulting in serious damage to the body over time. 

  • Steatosis (Fatty Liver) – this disease 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

Directly after drinking alcohol, your heart rate and blood pressure rise. Although, once the substance is out of your system, your vital signs return to normal again. Excessive alcohol consumption, though, can result in an irregular heartbeat and weakened heart muscle. This puts those with AUD at a higher risk of:

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

Gastrointestinal Infections

Alcohol directly aggravates your gastrointestinal tract (digestive system). This is because your digestive system is the first site of exposure after alcohol ingestion. More specifically, it makes your stomach produce extra acid, which can lead to inflammation of the stomach lining (gastritis). In addition, you may experience: 

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

Certain Cancers

Drinking alcohol frequently increases your risk of developing certain cancers. This includes oral cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and larynx (throat) cancer:

Oral Cancer

Heavy, long-term alcohol intake is the leading cause of oral cancer. This type of cancer 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.

Larynx Cancer

Larynx cancer affects your voice box, which contains your vocal cords and aids in breathing. Alcohol and tobacco abuse are the leading causes of larynx cancer. This disease is more commonly diagnosed in older people than younger people. Voice changes, neck swelling, and difficulty swallowing are common symptoms. 

Esophageal Cancer

Esophageal cancer affects the food pipe that connects to your stomach. Tobacco is the main cause of this cancer, but long-term alcohol abuse also increases your risk. Symptoms include chest pain, heartburn, hoarseness, and frequent coughing.

Colon Cancer

Frequent alcohol use is linked to colorectal cancer. This type of 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 at risk if they abuse 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. Although, while alcohol increases your risk of liver cancer, hepatitis B and C are the leading causes. 

More than 700,000 people are diagnosed with liver cancer around the world each year.

Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in women. Even having just a couple of drinks per week increases your risk of developing breast cancer. One possible reason for this is that alcohol increases estrogen levels. This is especially true if you do not have enough folate in your diet.

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Physical Effects of Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is when an individual 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. 

Some physical effects of binge drinking and moderate intoxication 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 
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Physical Effects of Alcohol Poisoning

Binge drinking is the primary cause of alcohol poisoning (overdose). In short, alcohol poisoning can happen if you consume large quantities of alcohol quickly. Since many people do not know their alcohol limit, an overdose can occur suddenly and without obvious warning. 

The physical effects of alcohol poisoning and severe intoxication include all of the same symptoms as binge drinking. However, alcohol overdoses can also cause:

  • Breathing difficulties
  • Changes in heart rate, such as arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
  • Pale or blue-tinged skin
  • A decrease in body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia
  • Blackouts, or in more severe cases, a loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Extreme confusion and dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Kidney failure and death (rare)

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


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Resources

“Alcohol and Cancer.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 8 July 2019, www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/index.htm.

“Alcohol-Related Liver Disease And Alcohol Damage - ALF.” American Liver Foundation, liverfoundation.org/for-patients/about-the-liver/diseases-of-the-liver/alcohol-related-liver-disease/#facts-at-a-glance.

“Alcohol Use and Cancer.” American Cancer Society, www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/diet-physical-activity/alcohol-use-and-cancer.html.

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.

 

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Updated on: September 23, 2020
Author
Alyssa Hill
About
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Medically Reviewed
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Annamarie Coy,
BA, CADACII/ICADC, ICPR, MATS
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