How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Whether alcohol is used heavily on occasion or regularly, it can take a serious toll on the body. In the short-term as well as the long-term, the drinker can suffer serious damage to organ function, the immune system and more. More than just a hangover, the health effects of regular alcohol abuse or alcoholism can be devastating – and deadly.

Struggling with health problems due to alcohol use is one of the signs that use of the substance is problematic enough to warrant intervention and treatment. If your loved one is unable to stop drinking despite suffering from health issues caused by alcohol, contact us at Alta Mira now and learn more about our intensive alcohol detox and addiction treatment program today.

What Are the Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body?

alcoholWhile under the influence of alcohol, a number of acute health problems can impact the drinker’s ability to function and stay safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), these can include:

  • Hangovers. Though often comically portrayed on TV and in movies, hangovers cause illness characterized by nausea and vomiting, dehydration, headache, body aches and more. These can impair a person’s ability to drive, care for children, operate machinery safely, and think clearly.
  • Blood alcohol content (BAC). Between 30 to 70 minutes after ingesting a drink, the levels of alcohol in the blood, or BAC, can be measured. This number is affected by how many drinks were ingested and in what period of time. Weight, gender and the amount of food in the stomach may also affect the results. A BAC as low as 0.02 can negatively impact driving ability; it is illegal in every state to drive with a BAC over 0.08. However, poor driving combined with a lower BAC than 0.08 can still culminate in a DUI (driving under the influence) arrest.
  • Impaired functioning. While under the influence, drinkers are less able to make clear decisions, manage hand-eye coordination, react accurately and swiftly, or operate machinery including a car. As a result, accidents that harm the drinker as well as innocent bystanders can occur.
  • Binge drinking. Binge drinking is defined as indulging in more than four drinks in a single session for women and more than five drinks during the same time period for men. Binge drinking brings with it a risk of numerous short-term health issues including unwanted pregnancy, alcohol poisoning, intentional or unintentional injury, stroke, and a host of long-term health problems as well.
  • Alcohol poisoning. High levels of alcohol in the blood can cause medical emergency, requiring the drinker to go to the emergency room for treatment. Untreated, it can cause low body temperature and blood pressure, suppression of the central nervous system, loss of consciousness, respiratory depression, coma and/or death.
  • Accident under the influence. Drowning, getting burned, causing an accident on the job, getting into an car accident, and unintentionally harming oneself (or someone else) with a firearm are all more common when someone has been drinking.
  • Sex-related injury. Becoming the victim of sexual assault or suffering from sexually transmitted diseases due to having unprotected sex are more likely when someone is drunk.
  • Miscarriage and stillbirth. Loss of a child while pregnant due to overindulging in alcohol can occur with chronic alcohol abuse or after an intense binge. Should the child survive, heavy drinking throughout the pregnancy can cause a long list of health problems for the baby both immediately at birth and developmentally throughout their childhood.

Factors That Affect the Development of Alcohol-Related Disorders

Everyone is different. No two people will experience the same consequences of alcohol abuse, even if they have similar drinking habits. There are a number of factors that can contribute to whether or not – or to what degree – a drinker will suffer physical harm due to alcohol intake. These include:

  • Amount of alcohol ingested
  • Time lapse between drinking sessions
  • Length of active alcohol abuse
  • Use of other illicit substances
  • Genetics
  • Environment
  • Diet

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body?

Every single system in the body is negatively impacted by the long-term use of alcohol in large amounts.

Perhaps the most overwhelmingly negative long-term effect of chronic alcohol abuse is the development of alcoholism. Affecting an estimated 18 million Americans, Medline Plus says that alcoholism is defined by:

  • Cravings for more alcohol
  • An inability to moderate one’s drinking either during a drinking session or on a day-to-day basis
  • High tolerance for alcohol (e.g., needing larger and larger amounts of alcohol in order to feel its effects)
  • Physical and mental withdrawal symptoms when without alcohol (e.g., nausea, vomiting, shaking, sweating, anxiety and more)

Alcoholism, like binge drinking, is not only a long-term health problem caused by drinking itself, but in turn, it can cause a slew of disorders as well. Additionally, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction reports that there are a number of long-term disorders and diseases that can negatively impact the drinker’s quality of life or cause death.

Brain:The size of neurons in the brain and structure of brain tissue can be altered by long-term heavy drinking. These and other disruptions can alter the way the person behaves and feels. Long-term damage can be done to the patient’s ability to function cognitively; it can also impair their motor skills as well.

Dementia may be an earlier or more severe issue for those who drink heavily as well as other mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Additionally, alcohol-related disorders that primarily impact other organs can also negatively impact the brain, causing coma and/or death.


A number of chronic and deadly disorders can plague the heart due to long-term alcohol abuse. These can include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat (both atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia)
  • Alcoholic cardiomyopathy
  • Heart disease
  • Heart failure
  • Stroke

Liver:Fat can build up in the liver when people drink heavily, even after a short period. Over time, this problem can build to cause serious liver-related disorders. In the same way, drinking can also cause scar tissue to develop in the liver, an issue that can cause health problems as well. Among alcoholics, the following are the most common alcohol-related liver disorders and diseases:

  • Cirrhosis of the liver
  • Fatty liver
  • Fibrosis
  • Alcoholic hepatitis

The NIAAA reports that one in five alcoholics will develop alcoholic hepatitis, and one in four alcoholics will develop cirrhosis of the liver.


Pancreatitis is the most common alcohol-related disorder to impact the drinker’s pancreas. Inflammation occurs every time the person drinks heavily, but after long-term heavy drinking, that inflammation can remain constant. A pancreatic attack is characterized by:

  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Increased heart rate
  • Abdominal pain and diarrhea
  • Sweating

Cancers:The risk of development of certain cancers is increased significantly due to long-term heavy drinking. Though it can increase the odds of developing cancer anywhere in the body, the most common types of cancer found among alcoholics include:

  • Liver cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Throat cancer (e.g., larynx cancer and pharynx cancer)
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Breast cancer

Additionally, patients who drink heavily weaken their immune system over time and thus increase the likelihood that they will be unable to defend themselves against diseases that can be deadly, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia. These disorders are all the more serious among alcoholics because heavy drinkers often do not recognize early signs of a chronic illness and therefore do not seek early intervention that can be life-saving, allowing the disease to progress to a point where it can be overwhelming.

Knockout Box: Isn’t Some Amount of Alcohol Healthy?

AlcoholNew studies come out all the time touting the benefits of small amounts of alcohol. This is not, however, a justification for drinking if someone is abstinent or struggling with addiction issues. The amount of alcohol that is healthy is far less even than the standard drink. It is also not an open ticket to drink just any alcoholic beverage. Wine is the only recommended beverage and less than a half a glass is suggested for maximum health effect and minimum negative effects. However, additional caveats apply:

  • Women should never drink more than one drink a day.
  • Men should never drink more than two drinks per day.
  • Pregnant women should never drink.
  • Those who will be driving should not have even one alcoholic beverage.
  • Alcohol in any amount is illegal for those under the age of 21.
  • Those taking medications that will be affected by alcohol should not drink in any amount.

Are Long-Term Health Problems Reversible?

Often, when long-term health problems are the reason that someone seeks treatment for alcohol abuse or addiction, the hope is that stopping drinking will serve to reverse the negative health impacts of that disorder. However, whether or not treatment and the cessation of drinking will be effective in reversing the effects of certain health problems will depend upon a number of factors, including:

  • How advanced the disease is at the time of cessation of drinking
  • Whether or not the patient also smokes
  • How long the person has been drinking
  • The specifics of the disorder

For example, the NIAAA reports that structural changes to the brain may be able to partially correct themselves after a year or so of ongoing abstinence from alcohol. Abstinence can also improve the negative impact on cognitive functioning. However, mental health issues may need to be addressed through mental health treatment and some changes may not be reversible.

Stopping drinking will certainly help the person struggling with liver disease, other liver disorders or pancreatitis. In addition to quitting smoking, eating healthfully, and making other positive lifestyle changes, abstinence can stop the progression of liver- and pancreas-related disorders. However, in severe cases, extensive treatment options may still be necessary to improve the odds of long-term recovery.

Heart disease and other cardiac issues as well as any type of cancer will not be reversed when the patient stops drinking. However, cutting out alcohol is one of many changes that can improve the outcome of treatment and increase the odds of managing the disease or going into remission for the long-term.

A New Lease on Life Through Alcohol Rehab

If your loved one is struggling with acute or chronic health problems due to heavy drinking but is still unable to manage the problem alone, we can help. Contact us at Alta Mira today and learn more about our intensive rehabilitation program and how it can help your addicted loved one and your family move a step closer to recovery today.