The short-term effects of drinking alcohol and symptoms of alcohol abuse, typically include impaired balance and coordination, disorientation, and being noticeably drunk, but these effects typically wear off within a few hours. It’s the long-term effects and symptoms of alcohol abuse that are difficult to see, dangerous to live with, and nearly impossible to overcome, which is what you need to watch out for.
It’s easy to understand that drinking makes you drunk and that being drunk can make you vulnerable to various dangers such as DUI, car accident, and being taken advantage of, among other negative consequences. What isn’t always as easy to see is the fact that drinking also has various long-term effects that can stick around even after you decide to quit drinking. The dangers of alcohol abuse don’t just go away when you quit drinking—in fact, the long-term effects of alcohol abuse are often more dangerous than the immediate effects themselves.
A myriad of different health issues can arise as a result of chronic alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction. Some of these issues may go away on their own with time, while others may cause long-term damage that progressively becomes worse. Deciding to quit drinking is one of the best decisions you can make for your health. However, your health may already have sustained great damage from drinking by the time you decide to quit.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Men and women who engage in heavy alcohol use are highly likely to experience shrinkage of the brain. The brain can be permanently damaged as a result of binge drinking, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, and consuming alcohol for a prolonged period.
Memory lapses are likely when alcohol abuse is a factor. The longer a person drinks alcohol on a regular basis, the more severe and frequent these memory lapses will become. Even after a person stops drinking, the brain will continue to suffer great damage and experience difficulty with learning new things or retaining information in a clear, concise manner. Studies have not yet determined the exact cause of alcohol abuse and how it relates to brain damage, aside from the fact that drinking has been found to cause brain shrinkage.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Liver
Alcohol abuse can also cause significant damage to the liver. Excessive drinking causes liver damage that is irreversible, and in many cases, may not even cause symptoms until many years after the last drink was consumed. However, these symptoms of alcohol abuse can be detected by your doctor if you are open with your doctor about your level of alcohol consumption. Stopping drinking will always slow down and prevent further liver damage from occurring. If you’re suffering from alcohol abuse or addiction, quitting drinking today can significantly reduce your risk for suffering worsened liver health.
Heavy alcohol use can put excessive strain on the liver that makes it difficult for the liver to do its job. The liver is the main organ responsible for eliminating alcohol from the body — meaning constant or frequent high levels of blood alcohol can damage the cells within the liver.
With sustained drinking, the liver will eventually suffer damage, and progress to conditions including fatty liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis. Collectively, these health conditions are known as alcoholic liver disease. Symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, and severe abdominal pain.
The sooner you quit drinking, the sooner you can allow your liver to repair itself. But sustained drinking can eventually lead to catastrophic liver failure, followed by death if a liver transplant cannot be carried out.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Pancreas
Pancreatic and intestinal damage can also occur due to alcohol abuse. The pancreas secretes enzymes into the small intestine that help break down food particles for digestion. The pancreas also produces insulin to help regulate the body’s glucose level. When you drink alcohol, the toxins from alcohol can lead to acute or chronic pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas.
Pancreatitis can lead to insulin imbalance, which can trigger a life-threatening condition called hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. Alcohol can also interfere with the way the small intestine absorbs vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients to cause malnourishment and nutritional deficiencies. Over time, the effects of alcohol on the pancreas can increase the risk for diabetes and pancreatic cancer.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Skeletal System
Alcohol affects the body’s absorption of calcium and interferes with vitamin D production to cause loss of bone density and a higher risk for osteoporosis. The effect of alcohol on the skeletal system can also inhibit new bone production, and even causes loss of muscle mass to make you weaker and more susceptible to falls and fractures. Muscles may also tend to cramp and can atrophy with long-term heavy alcohol use.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Reproductive System
Alcohol abuse can cause serious reproductive health issues in both men and women. In men, alcohol abuse can lead to erectile dysfunction, infertility, decreased testicular function, and hormone imbalances. Women who abuse alcohol can suffer infertility, irregular or stopped menstruation, and pregnancy issues including miscarriage, premature delivery, and stillbirth.
Women who drink during pregnancy are more likely to have babies born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, or FASD. FASD is characterized by short height, small head, low body weight, abnormal facial features, and a range of behavioral and cognitive problems. Babies born with FASD tend to suffer poor memory and coordination, learning disabilities, speech and language delays, low IQ, and many other related problems that range from mild to severe.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Circulatory System
Heart problems are common among those who abuse alcohol. Heavy alcohol consumption is strongly linked to alcoholic cardiomyopathy or disease of the heart muscle. Drinking too much alcohol can increase blood triglyceride levels and lead to high blood pressure, heart failure, stroke, cardiac arrhythmia, anemia, and sudden cardiac death.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Digestive System
Even just one single drinking episode can injure parts of the digestive system. Toxins in alcohol can interfere with the structure and function of the digestive tract and impair muscle function in ways that trigger heartburn and esophageal cancer.
Alcohol use can impair the digestive system by:
- Damaging salivary glands
- Irritating the mouth and tongue
- Causing gum disease, tooth decay, and—in serious situations—tooth loss
- Causing ulcers of the esophagus and the stomach
- Lowering blood sugar levels
- Causing acid reflux and heartburn
- Causing flatulence, fullness, and diarrhea
- Causing malabsorption and nutritional deficiencies
- Causing internal bleeding
Alcohol Abuse and Cancer Risk
People who drink high amounts of alcohol regularly over time are at greater risk of developing alcohol-related cancer. Even light drinkers and binge drinkers face an increased risk for cancer. Alcohol can cause cancer due to the way it interferes with nutrient absorption, hormones, cell function, and DNA. Alcohol abuse has been linked to cancers of the mouth, throat, stomach, colon, liver, breast, and the head and neck. People who use both alcohol and tobacco are found to be at much greater risk for developing cancer of the mouth, throat, and neck compared to people who use just one of these substances.
Drinking can be a deadly situation, and the long-term effects of alcohol abuse are likely to linger for many years even after you quit. But quitting today may help prevent serious alcohol-related health conditions from becoming worse. Seeking help for alcohol abuse can provide you with the tools, support, and backing that you need to make a full and lasting recovery.