Long-Term Effects Of Alcohol Misuse
People who misuse alcohol face a high risk of cancer as well as liver, heart, and brain damage. They are also more likely to experience infections, insomnia, digestive issues, and problems in their personal and professional lives. In addition, alcohol misuse often leads to addiction, a serious disease that makes you feel unable to stop drinking alcohol.
About 2.3 billion people drink alcohol worldwide. While some of them drink in moderation, others misuse alcohol. This behavior can have a number of long-term effects that range from mild to life-threatening.
If you or someone you love misuses alcohol, it’s important to seek professional help.
Defining Alcohol Misuse
Alcohol misuse occurs when you drink alcohol in a manner that poses serious health risks. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), there are two main types of alcohol misuse: binge drinking and heavy drinking.
Binge drinking occurs when a female has 4 or more drinks in about 2 hours and a male has 5 or more drinks in about 2 hours. Heavy drinking occurs when a female has more than 3 drinks per day (or more than 7 drinks per week) and a male has more than 4 drinks per day (or more than 14 drinks per week).
The NIAAA defines a standard drink as any drink that contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This amount of alcohol is found in 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of liquor.
People who misuse alcohol face a variety of long-term effects and risks, including:
Increased Risk Of Infections
Alcohol weakens your immune system by decreasing the number of antibodies that fight off viruses and bacteria. It also decreases healthy bacteria that help regulate your immune system.
As a result, excessive alcohol use puts you at greater risk of infections, including the common cold, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. It can also increase the amount of time it takes to recover from such illnesses.
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Some people use alcohol as a sleep aid. While drinking might make you drowsy at first, it hinders your sleep quality in the long run. Many heavy drinkers develop insomnia, a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to fall or stay asleep.
Alcohol may also raise your risk of sleep apnea, a condition that causes repeated breathing interruptions as you sleep. It can prevent you from getting a full night’s rest. When left untreated, it also poses other risks, including heart attack and stroke.
As a toxin, alcohol irritates your stomach lining. This effect can lead to ulcers as well as inflammation of the stomach, intestines, and esophagus, especially if you drink a lot.
In addition, alcohol can trigger a buildup of toxic substances in your pancreas, which may lead to pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas). According to a 2023 study, alcohol misuse causes 17% to 25% of acute pancreatitis cases globally.
Whenever you drink alcohol, your liver must break it down. Drinking too much or too often puts serious stress on your liver. This stress can lead to various types of liver damage, including:
- alcoholic hepatitis (inflammation of the liver)
- steatosis (fatty liver disease)
- fibrosis (scarring of the liver)
- cirrhosis (late-stage fibrosis, which can lead to liver failure)
Alcohol impacts your neurotransmitters, which are chemicals in your brain that affect the way you think, feel, and behave. Misusing alcohol may disrupt the natural balance of your neurotransmitters.
This disruption can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. It can also take a toll on your ability to focus, make decisions, and remember things.
In addition, in severe cases, alcohol misuse may cause permanent brain damage and memory loss.
Excessive drinking can weaken your heart and prevent it from functioning properly. As a result, it increases your risk of cardiovascular issues such as:
- high blood pressure
- arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat)
- cardiomyopathy, a heart disease that makes it harder for your heart to pump blood throughout your body
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), your body breaks down alcohol into a carcinogen called acetaldehyde. This toxic compound can cause cancer by permanently damaging your DNA. Indeed, alcohol misuse has been linked to multiple cancers, including cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.
Along with causing numerous health issues, alcohol misuse can wreak havoc on your personal life. Because alcohol lowers your inhibitions and alters your mood, heavy drinkers often face relationship problems. Some even become violent toward their loved ones.
Excessive alcohol consumption can also disrupt your work performance, leading to job loss, financial strain, and, in some cases, homelessness.
Finally, alcohol misuse makes you more likely to commit crimes, including theft, property damage, and assault. These crimes can have serious consequences, including jail time.
People who regularly misuse alcohol face a high risk of alcohol addiction (also called alcohol use disorder). This serious health condition makes you feel unable to stop drinking alcohol despite negative consequences. Other symptoms may include:
- frequent cravings for alcohol
- tolerance (needing increasingly larger or more frequent drinks to feel the desired effects)
- physical dependence (experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating or anxiety, when you don’t drink alcohol)
- loss of motivation
- loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- avoidance of family and friends
Like other types of addiction, alcohol addiction requires treatment.
To learn about treatment options, please reach out to Ohio Recovery Center. Our board-certified healthcare providers offer medical detox, behavioral therapy, and other substance abuse treatments to help you or your loved one thrive.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/index.htm
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking
- National Library of Medicine: StatPearls https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537191/
- World Health Organization https://www.who.int/news/item/21-09-2018-harmful-use-of-alcohol-kills-more-than-3-million-people-each-year--most-of-them-men