Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Misusing alcohol over a long period of time can cause or contribute to a number of problems related to physical and mental health, relationships, work, finances, and other areas of life. In terms of health, alcohol abuse has been found to put people at risk for long-term chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease. It can permanently damage the brain and contribute to dementia. Alcohol abuse damages the liver, which can lead to long-term disease that when severe is not reversible. Ultimately, misusing alcohol can cause death, but it can also be treated. Treatment can help anyone stop drinking and prevent or reverse many of these long-term effects.
There are many short-term risks of drinking, and these increase with the amount a person drinks at once, and with frequency of drinking.
In the short term, excessive drinking can lead to accidents, injuries, alcohol poisoning, legal problems, and risky behaviors with very serious consequences, like unprotected sex and unplanned pregnancies. Over the long term, the number and severity of risks are even greater.
Long-term problems associated with abusing alcohol include chronic health problems like heart disease and stroke, a greater risk of accidents and resulting injuries, legal problems and incarceration, mental illness, severe alcohol use disorder, declining cognitive function, liver disease, and even death.
Alcohol abuse has serious consequences, but it can be curbed with professional treatment, either on an outpatient basis or in a residential setting.
Alcohol Use Disorder
An important risk of abusing alcohol is developing an alcohol use disorder. What is now called mild alcohol use disorder was once called simply alcohol abuse. It can be reversed with lifestyle changes and support, but moderate and severe alcohol use disorder are more difficult to change. With these more serious forms of the disorder, a person will need dedicated and professional treatment to stop drinking and to minimize or prevent relapses in the future.
Accidents and Injuries
An accident while drinking can happen even to someone who doesn’t drink often. Being inebriated tends to trigger poor decision-making. This can lead to accidents, but drinking also causes poor coordination that can cause a fall or other type of accident and resulting injuries. The more a person drinks, and the more heavily they drink, the more likely an accident is to happen. Accidents can cause injuries with long-lasting consequences:
- Causing a vehicle accident while drinking could lead to permanent injuries, legal problems, and to hurting or killing other people.
- A fall, a near-drowning accident, or being victimized by violence may cause permanent injuries, like chronic pain, paralysis, or brain damage.
- Risky choices may lead to contracting sexually transmitted diseases or unplanned pregnancies.
- Drinking heavily while pregnant can lead to a child being born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, with complications and symptoms that affect that child forever.
Memory, reaction time, coordination, and the ability to think clearly are all impacted when drinking, but these issues generally resolve once alcohol has been processed and is out of the bloodstream. But regular, heavy drinking can cause some of these kinds of issues that become semi-permanent or permanent. Long-term damage to the brain is not unusual in heavy drinkers, and it may be caused directly by alcohol or indirectly by poor health and nutrition.
Thiamine deficiency, for instance, is common in alcoholics because of malnutrition. This can cause a disease called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. Symptoms include paralysis in the nerves in the eye, poor muscle coordination, and mental confusion. It can become severe and lead to encephalopathy, an inability to walk, and psychosis.
Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses
Alcohol abuse can cause or contribute to a number of chronic illnesses. Some of these may get better when a person stops drinking, but in many cases the damage is long-lasting. For instance, a person with or at risk for type 2 diabetes can worsen the condition or poorly control it by drinking too much. This in turn could lead to serious diabetic complications, like nerve damage, skin conditions, kidney damage, neuropathy and foot damage, stroke, ketoacidosis, and more. Other illnesses that alcohol abuse may cause, contribute to, or increase the risk of developing include:
- Mouth, stomach, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, breast, lung, colon, and liver cancers
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
- Liver cirrhosis
- Sexual dysfunction
Besides contributing to these illnesses, alcohol abuse often prevents a person from managing existing chronic diseases. Someone who has one or more health problems and drinks heavily may not take all necessary medications, may not keep up with doctor appointments, and may have poor nutrition and overall health that cause the illnesses to progress or symptoms to worsen.
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Liver Damage and Disease
The liver is the organ in the body that processes alcohol, and with heavy use of alcohol it can become damaged and diseased. Alcoholic liver disease occurs in stages, from fatty liver disease to alcoholic hepatitis to cirrhosis of the liver. Fatty liver can be reversed by stopping drinking; alcoholic hepatitis may be reversible to some degree; and cirrhosis is very serious, cannot be reversed, and is fatal unless a liver transplant can be done.
During fatty liver disease the cells in the liver become inflamed and damaged. It is a silent illness in that it rarely causes any noticeable symptoms. Alcoholic hepatitis occurs when the damage and inflammation get worse. It can cause noticeable signs, like jaundice, tenderness in the abdomen, fever, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and weight loss. Anyone with fatty liver disease or hepatitis should stop drinking completely to help reverse the damage.
Cirrhosis occurs as so much damage to liver tissue causes the organ to try to repair itself, resulting in scar tissue. As more scar tissue forms the liver can’t function normally anymore. This damage cannot usually be reversed. If it is caught in the very early stages, it may be possible to treat and reverse it. Stopping drinking is essential to ensure the damage doesn’t get any worse.
Alcohol and other types of substance abuse often co-occur with mental illnesses. There are several possible reasons for this, although the exact reasons cannot necessarily be pinpointed in any individual. One reason is that alcohol abuse and many mental illnesses have several of the same risk factors, like experiencing trauma or lacking good social support. It is also likely that alcohol abuse triggers or worsens mental illness and that mental illness can lead a person to use alcohol as an unhealthy way to cope.
One of the more common mental illnesses that co-occurs with alcohol abuse is depression. According to studies, up to 80 percent of people with severe alcohol use disorder have episodes of depression. Alcohol-related depression may be explained by several factors: alcohol has a depressive effect in the brain; depression may already have been present but was untreated; or the consequences of drinking too much may trigger episodes of depression. Bipolar disorder is also common in people with an alcohol use disorder.
Other Consequences of Alcohol Abuse
Misuse of alcohol can cause so many physical and mental health problems, many of which are lasting. These health problems, along with the poor decisions a person makes while under the influence of alcohol or struggling with alcohol use disorder, can also trigger or contribute to problems that are not directly related to health. These can be just as devastating and have as much or more of an impact on a person’s life in the long-term:
- Broken relationships, divorce, and broken families
- Loss of a job or inability to keep any job
- Financial problems
- Poverty or homelessness
- Legal consequences and incarceration
- Domestic abuse
Reducing the Risk of Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
The very serious consequences of abusing alcohol can be avoided by drinking in moderation or not at all. It is never too late to stop drinking. Even if damage has already been done, stopping drinking will reverse much of that damage. Depending on how long a person has been drinking, and how much, stopping may be very difficult.
It is important to seek out professional treatment if attempts to stop or moderate drinking are not effective. Treatment facilities can make an accurate diagnosis and then develop an individualized treatment plan that may include various types of therapy, medications, group support, family involvement, holistic care, and strategies to address and help with other issues, like finding a job or affordable housing.
Alcohol can cause a lot of damage, but it is possible to take back control. If you or a loved one is struggling with drinking, it is crucial to reach out and seek help from those who are experienced in diagnosing and treating alcohol use disorders.