The effects of alcohol abuse vary between individuals, but they can touch on all aspects of a person’s life. Heavy drinking can affect your health, career, family, and more. If you or someone you know is having trouble dealing with the effects of alcohol abuse and wants to stop drinking, learn how to get started on the road to an alcohol-free life today.
How It Affects the Body
When alcohol enters the bloodstream, it causes a wide range of effects across many different bodily systems. The effects begin as soon as the alcohol gets into your blood. However, the speed at which alcohol enters the bloodstream depends on a few factors. Carbonated alcoholic drinks, such as champagne, enter the bloodstream faster than non-carbonated drinks. When you have a full stomach, alcohol is absorbed more slowly than when you have not eaten in a while.
Once alcohol is in your bloodstream, your breathing and heart rate slow down and you experience feelings of drowsiness, mental confusion, and intoxication. The effects begin about 10 minutes after consuming alcohol and last until the alcohol is processed by the liver and leaves the body. The effects of alcohol abuse are distinct from the effects of moderate alcohol consumption, but the basic way that alcohol affects the body is the same whether you have a single drink or many drinks. The difference lies in the degree of the effects and in the additional impact that alcohol abuse has on many areas of your life.
Understanding Alcohol Abuse and Addiction
Alcohol abuse is any use of alcohol beyond moderate drinking. Moderate drinking is defined as having two or fewer drinks per day if you are a man and one or fewer drinks per day if you are a woman. Someone who drinks more than this is considered a heavy drinker. Binge drinking involves consuming five or more drinks in a single session if you are male and four or more drinks in a single session if you are female. When considering the effects of alcohol abuse, you must take into account the definition of a single serving of alcohol. One drink can be any of the following:
- 5 ounces of red or white wine
- 12 ounces of beer
- 8 ounces of malt liquor.
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, such as rum, gin, or vodka
Alcohol addiction occurs when a person becomes physically or psychologically dependent on alcohol. Someone who is addicted to alcohol may experience cravings for alcohol and have trouble controlling his or her alcohol use. An alcoholic may continue to drink even after experiencing health problems, mental health issues, problems at work or school, or deteriorating relationships. Unlike the effects of alcohol abuse, which can develop soon after the person starts abusing alcohol, the effects of alcohol addiction develop over time. Someone who abuses alcohol is at an increased risk of developing an addiction to alcohol.
What are the Short-term Effects?
“…over 1.6 million people in the U.S. were hospitalized for alcohol-related conditions in 2005.” The short-term effects of alcohol abuse are often the result of binge drinking. Someone who is heavily intoxicated may put himself or herself at greater risk of accidental injury or death. These alcohol-fueled injuries may occur as the result of car accidents, falls, burns, or drowning. Someone who abuses alcohol is more likely to become involved in violence and more likely to engage in risky sexual activity, including having unprotected sex or having sex with multiple partners. Another potential danger of alcohol abuse is the possibility of alcohol poisoning. Alcohol poisoning can occur if the level of alcohol in the bloodstream becomes too high. This can cause a drop in blood pressure, a drop in body temperature, and the cessation of breathing. The person can go into a coma and die from alcohol poisoning. Often, hospitalization as the result of alcohol abuse is the trigger that sends a problem drinker in search of help. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 1.6 million people in the U.S. were hospitalized for alcohol-related conditions in 2005.
Common Long-term Effects
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In addition to the short-term effects, there are also some long-term effects of alcohol abuse. Someone who repeatedly engages in heavy drinking or binge drinking may cause permanent neurological damage that can lead to dementia, stroke, or neuropathy. A chronic alcohol abuser may also develop cardiovascular disease, liver disease, or gastrointestinal problems over time. The risk of cancer also increases when a person drinks heavily. Some people also develop mental illnesses, such as depression, or experience bouts of anxiety. People who drink heavily over a long period of time may develop alcoholism. Alcoholism often begins when the person builds up tolerance, a condition in which more alcohol is required to get the same effect because the brain has adapted to the frequent use of alcohol. Once alcoholism is established, the person may experience withdrawal symptoms whenever he or she goes without alcohol for a while. These symptoms can include shakiness, insomnia, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, sweating, nausea, headache, depression, and loss of appetite.
Alcoholism and the Individual
In addition to the health effects of alcohol abuse, alcohol use can also impact a person’s home, school, or work life. Someone who has an alcohol problem may struggle with unemployment. Alcohol abuse can make it difficult to get or keep a job. An alcoholic or alcohol abuser is also more likely to live in poverty than someone who is not an alcoholic.
How it Impacts the Family
“…about two out of every three incidents of domestic violence involve alcohol in some way.” The effects of alcohol abuse can have an impact on not only the individual who drinks, but also on the entire family unit. Someone who abuses alcohol has a higher risk of divorce and a higher risk of being involved in domestic violence. Even when a couple stays together, alcoholism puts a strain on the marriage relationship. The spouse of an alcoholic may become codependent and start to cover up for the alcoholic. He or she may make excuses for the alcoholic spouse’s behavior, clean up messes left by the alcoholic, lie for the alcoholic, or take on added responsibility at work or home. By covering for the other person, the codependent spouse enables the alcoholic to escape the consequences of his or her alcoholism and remain in denial. Family members who are concerned about a loved one’s alcohol use can join Al-Anon, the support group for family and friends of alcoholics.
When a parent is an alcoholic, it can affect the children as well. Parental alcoholism effects include a higher risk of child abuse or neglect, a higher risk of later drug or alcohol abuse by the child, and long-lasting emotional trauma. The children of alcoholics may also be more prone to developing mental illness later in life.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about two out of every three incidents of domestic violence involve alcohol in some way.
Lasting Damage During Pregnancy
The effects of alcohol abuse during pregnancy can be long lasting and damage to the developing baby can be severe. According to the Nemours Foundation, about 40,000 babies are born with Fetal Alcohol Effects, or FAE, every year, and one in every 750 babies is born with the more severe alcohol-related disorder Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS.
Symptoms of FAS include:
- Low birth weight
- Failure to thrive after birth
- A small head circumference
- Organ damage
- Facial deformities
- Developmental delays
- Poor motor skills
- Learning disabilities
- Behavioral problems
The symptoms of FAE are the same as FAS but are much milder. Women who drink heavily during the first trimester are more likely to have a child who shows symptoms of FAS or FAE. Binge drinking is more likely to cause problems than occasional moderate drinking, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant abstain completely from alcohol in order to avoid the effects of alcohol abuse on the fetus. In addition to the risk of FAE and FAS, pregnant women who drink are also at a higher risk of miscarriage or stillbirth.
Teens and Drinking
Although alcohol use is illegal in the U.S. for anyone under the age of 21, alcohol use and abuse by teens is still a common problem. According to the National Institutes of Health, about 20 percent of teens are considered problem drinkers. Teens encounter many of the same health effects of alcohol abuse as adults do, but the effects can be more pronounced in teens because of their lower body weight and the fact that their organs are still developing. Teens who drink have a harder time paying attention, including paying attention at school. They are more likely to drop out of school or attempt suicide than teens who do not abuse alcohol. People who start drinking earlier in life are also more likely to develop a problem with alcohol, including alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
If you suspect that your teen may be abusing alcohol, there are some steps you can take to get help for your teen. Parents with a teen who abuses alcohol should create household rules against alcohol use and devise specific consequences that the parent has the power to enforce. Parents may need to monitor the teen’s behavior and watch for signs of alcohol use. This may include checking potential hiding places in the teen’s room for hidden alcohol. Parents should also encourage healthy activities, such as sports or clubs, which can provide an alcohol-free peer group for the teen. One of the most important things that parents can do to help prevent or stop alcohol abuse in a teen is to talk with the teen about his or her alcohol use, the effects of alcohol abuse, and any underlying issues that may cause stress on the teen and cause him or her to turn to alcohol for comfort. Because teens who drink are also more likely to use other drugs, such as marijuana, you should also keep an eye out for signs of potential drug use if you suspect your teen has an alcohol problem.
Teens who drink alcohol are more likely to be the victims of sexual abuse than teens who do not drink.
Treatment Options Available
When the effects of alcohol abuse become overwhelming, help is available. Treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction can take place in an inpatient clinic or on an outpatient basis. One major goal of treatment for alcohol abuse is to get the user to recognize and acknowledge how alcohol use is impacting the user’s life. This may be accomplished through individual psychotherapy or group therapy sessions. Some people who are recovering from alcohol abuse or addiction may benefit from joining a 12-step program, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. With help, even people who frequently binge drink can recover from the effects of alcohol abuse and return to a sober lifestyle.
If the person has a physical addiction to alcohol, he or she may experience withdrawal symptoms at the start of treatment. These symptoms are potentially dangerous, so withdrawal should be done in a controlled setting. Some of the potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can occur include mental confusion, seizures, high fever, and hallucinations. Withdrawal can be eased through the use of medication.
Treatment is typically a lifelong process, and the recovering alcohol abuser or alcoholic often needs to attend therapy or support group sessions for the rest of his or her life. In some cases, the effects of alcohol abuse may be irreversible. This is especially true for the long-term health effects, such as liver damage. However, with help, recovery can be successful and the damage can be halted before it gets worse.