Effects of Alcohol Use: Short-Term, Long-Term, Side Effects, and Treatment
While alcohol is widely used in the United States, it can have an array of harmful effects. A 2019 survey reported that 85.6% of Americans aged 18 and over had consumed alcohol at some time in their life, nearly 70% of people had consumed alcohol within the last 12 months, and almost 55% had consumed alcohol within the last 30 days.1
A 2020 survey showed that nearly 139 million Americans aged 12 or over were current drinkers of alcohol, almost 62 million of these (44.4%) engaged in binge drinking within the last month, and almost 18 million of these (12.8%) were heavy drinkers within the last month.2 There were more than 28 million Americans aged 12 and over who had an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2020.2
This article will discuss what an AUD is and the warning signs to be aware of, the difference between moderate drinking and alcohol misuse, the short-term effects of alcohol on the body and brain, the long-term effects of alcohol on the body and brain, effects of drinking alcohol while pregnant, what to expect from alcohol withdrawal, how to find treatment for AUD, and what happens in treatment.
Signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder
Addiction to any substance, including alcohol, is a medically recognized disease that can affect multiple areas of a person’s life. It is a chronic, often relapsing disease that occurs as a result of various complex factors, including circuits in the brain, a person’s unique genetics, their environment, and their lived experience.3, 4 Alcohol use changes how the circuits in the brain work, especially in the areas of rewards, stress, and impulse control, and can persist even after substance use has stopped.4, 5 People who have an AUD commonly develop compulsive behaviors surrounding alcohol, and are unable to stop drinking even after experiencing negative and harmful outcomes related to their alcohol use.3, 5
Commonly referred to as addictions, these are formally diagnosed as substance use disorders (SUDs). When a person has an alcohol addiction, it is known as alcohol use disorder (AUD). Healthcare providers are able to make a diagnosis of AUD by referring to criteria from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), and asking questions about your drinking habits, as well as identifying how severe the disorder is.5 Criteria for an AUD include:6
- Drinking more or for longer than originally planned.
- Wanting to or trying to cut back or stop drinking without success.
- Spending a lot of time getting or drinking alcohol, or being hungover.
- Having cravings to drink.
- Alcohol use repeatedly getting in the way of important responsibilities at home, school, or work.
- Inability to stop drinking even after having ongoing issues with other people that are caused or worsened by drinking.
- Stepping back from or quitting important hobbies, social, or work activities due to drinking.
- Repeatedly drinking when it can be dangerous, such as while driving.
- Continuing to drink even when you know it has caused or contributed to an ongoing physical or mental health issue.
- Developing a tolerance to the effects of alcohol.
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is significantly reduced or stopped abruptly.
The severity of an AUD is determined by the number of criteria that are met.6 If a person has 2 or 3 symptoms, the disorder is mild, while 4 or 5 symptoms indicate the disorder is moderate, and 6 or more symptoms indicate the disorder is severe.6
Moderate Drinking vs. Alcohol Misuse
United States Dietary Guidelines state that adults who are 21 or over drink moderately by consuming up to 1 alcoholic drink daily for females, or 2 alcoholic drinks daily for males.7, 8 An “alcoholic drink” can be further explained as a “standard drink size,” where 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor is considered to be one drink.7, 8 Excessive drinking and alcohol misuse can take various forms, including:
- Binge drinking: For men, binge drinking involves having 5 or more drinks containing alcohol within approximately 2 hours in the last month, and for women, it involves having 4 or more drinks.2, 7
- Heavy drinking: This can involve binge drinking 5 or more times within the last month, using the definition above for binge drinking for men and women.2 Heavy drinking can also involve having at least 15 drinks containing alcohol weekly for males, or at least 8 drinks containing alcohol weekly for females.7, 9
- Alcohol misuse: This involves any alcohol consumption by people who should not be drinking, such as individuals who are underage, and pregnant women.7, 8
- Excessive drinking: This encompasses binge drinking, heavy drinking, and alcohol misuse using the definitions listed above.9
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol Use
When consuming alcohol, effects on the body and mind vary depending on your blood alcohol content (BAC).7 Alcohol enters the bloodstream from the digestive tract, but if you drink more than you can process, the remaining alcohol stays in your bloodstream, where it can be measured as a percentage known as BAC.7, 10 The higher your BAC, the stronger the side effects of alcohol are.7 Short-term side effects of alcohol can include:
- Confusion.11, 12
- Difficulty concentrating.11, 12
- Impaired coordination.11, 12
- Lowered inhibitions.11, 12
- Memory issues.11, 12
- Mood and personality changes.12
- Slurring.11, 12
At higher BAC levels, breathing issues, nausea, vomiting, sedation, reduced body temperature, coma, and death can result.11, 12 Physical effects of alcohol in large amounts can impact the heart, leading to major issues like abnormal heart rhythms, damage to the heart muscle, stroke, or hypertension, which can impair your immune system for up to a day after drinking, and can impair your kidneys’ ability to function properly or even lead to acute kidney failure.13, 14 Consuming too much alcohol can place you at risk for alcohol poisoning, which can be life-threatening.9
Since alcohol impairs judgment, people who are under the influence are more likely to engage in dangerous or risky behaviors. People who are drunk are at greater risk for:9
- Injuries, such as car crashes, falls, or drownings.
- Unsafe sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex, unplanned pregnancy, or sexually transmitted infections.
- Violence, such as homicide, domestic violence, or sexual assault.
One common side effect of alcohol is a hangover. This is a cluster of symptoms that occurs after consuming an excess of alcohol, and typically involves symptoms like:15
- Aching muscles
- Dizziness or feeling like the room is spinning
- Feeling weak
- Increased sensitivity to light and sound
- Raised blood pressure
- Stomach pain
There are various factors that combine to create a hangover, including:15
- Dehydration: Alcohol causes the body to release fluids, leading to symptoms like fatigue, headache, and thirst the following day.
- Disturbed sleep: Alcohol interferes with how well you sleep. You may not feel well-rested the next day and are more likely to feel fatigued.
- Stomach irritation: Alcohol is an irritant to the stomach, stimulating more acid to be released, leading to symptoms like nausea and upset stomach the next day.
- Inflammation: Alcohol increases inflammation throughout the body, leading to a general feeling of unwellness, muscle aches, and feeling weak the next day.
- Mini-withdrawal: Consuming alcohol causes chemicals to be released in the brain, causing pleasant effects, such as feeling calm, relaxed, and euphoric. The brain works to compensate for these changes to keep the chemicals in balance, so when the effects of alcohol wear off, you may feel more anxious, irritable, or restless.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Over time, the negative effects of alcohol can impact nearly every organ system in the body. Alcohol can be harmful to various organs and systems and increase the risk of developing diseases.1 These can include:
- AUD: One of the major risks of long-term alcohol use is developing an AUD.9
- Cancer: Alcohol is known to be a carcinogen and has been linked to various types of cancers, including the mouth, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, colon, rectum, and breast or prostate.14, 16, 17 The more a person drinks, the more their risk increases.14
- Dementia: Alcohol can cause changes in how the brain functions and has been linked to the development of dementia.9
- Digestive system: Alcohol can raise the risk of gastric (stomach) bleeding and digestive issues.1, 9 It can also make diabetes more difficult to manage.1 Breaking down alcohol also causes the pancreas to form toxic byproducts that can cause painful and dangerous inflammation known as pancreatitis that can interfere with digestion.14
- Heart disease: Alcohol misuse raises the risk of developing heart disease and hypertension, as well as making these conditions harder to manage.1, 9 Alcohol can damage the heart muscle, causing it to stretch, in a condition known as cardiomyopathy, or cause the heart to beat irregularly.14
- Immune system: Alcohol suppresses the immune system, so people who drink regularly are less able to fight off contagious diseases like pneumonia.14
- Kidney issues: Chronic alcohol use makes the kidneys work harder, which can harm the kidneys and place you at twice the risk for developing chronic kidney disease.13
- Liver disease: People who are chronic drinkers are at risk for developing liver problems, starting with inflammation which can result in scarring and loss of functioning known as cirrhosis.9, 14
- Stroke: Alcohol misuse increases the likelihood of experiencing a stroke.1, 9
Long-term alcohol misuse has also been linked to an increased risk of developing anxiety and depression.1, 9 Alcohol can also lead to issues with learning and memory.9 It can affect relationships with family members, causing problems at home and with your ability to function at work, and in some cases lead to unemployment.9
Alcohol may alter hormone production in men, leading to erectile dysfunction and problems with fertility.17 Since alcohol affects women differently than men, they are at greater risk for developing liver, heart, and brain issues, as well as cancers, even if they drink less than men and for shorter periods of time.18, 19 Women who are chronic or heavy drinkers are at greater risk for blackouts as well as menstrual problems and lower fertility.19, 20
Alcohol Use During Pregnancy
If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, there is no known safe amount of alcohol to consume.19 Drinking while pregnant has been linked to a greater likelihood of miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight, and early delivery.18, 20 It can also cause fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), a group of conditions that range from mild to severe, which cause physical, intellectual, and behavioral issues.20, 21 Babies born to mothers who drank alcohol while pregnant are more likely to die from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).18
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
When alcohol is consumed regularly over time, the brain and body can become physically dependent on it to function normally, and if you stop drinking suddenly, you will experience withdrawal symptoms.6 Since it can be life-threatening, it is important to go through alcohol withdrawal and detox under medical supervision, especially if your withdrawal symptoms are likely to be severe or complicated.12 Symptoms include:
- Rapid pulse.6, 12
- Hand tremors.6, 12
- Insomnia.6, 12
- Nausea.6, 12
- Vomiting.6, 12
- Hallucinations.6, 12
- Restlessness.6, 12
- Anxiety.6, 12
- Seizures.6, 12
- Loss of appetite.12
- Elevated blood pressure.12
- Greater sensitivity to sounds, touch, and light.12
- Delusions, typically paranoia- or persecution-based.12
- Delirium, including disorientation and fluctuating levels of consciousness.12
Symptoms can range in severity, depending on age, how much and how often you drink, how long you have been drinking, and whether you’ve detoxed from alcohol before.6, 12 Withdrawal symptoms typically begin within 4 hours to a day after your last drink, becoming most intense after 2 days, and resolving within 4–5 days.6, 12
While medical detox is important to help you get through withdrawal safely, it is equally important to follow it up with further treatment in order to maintain sobriety. Detox is a beginning step toward lasting sobriety.12, 22 Detox is also a good way to get linked to further treatment and make transitioning into alcohol addiction treatment a smooth process.12
Medication is used during detox to manage symptoms and prevent complications.12 Benzodiazepines are the standard treatment for alcohol withdrawal, and long-acting medications such as chlordiazepoxide (Librium) or diazepam (Valium) are frequently used.12 These medications reduce withdrawal symptoms while preventing symptoms from worsening to seizures or delirium tremens (DTs).12 Once symptoms begin to resolve, the medication is slowly tapered down until you are able to discontinue it.12
Finding Treatment for Alcohol Use Disorder
In order to best help you, treatment should be tailored to meet your needs. The best way to do this is to talk with your doctor or a treatment professional, so they can help guide you toward a decision that is best for you. Their first step is to conduct a thorough evaluation, where you will be asked questions about your current and past substance use, physical and mental health, and how your addiction has affected various areas of your life, including your relationships, family, work, and home life.12 This will help you and the treatment professional determine what kind of treatment setting would be most effective for you, based on your needs, followed by an intake at a treatment center to begin care. Treatment settings can include:
- Detox: For withdrawal from alcohol, this is commonly done on an inpatient basis, so staff can monitor your symptoms around the clock, be alerted for any developing complications, and ensure your safety.5
- Inpatient: This involves staying at the facility around the clock for the duration of treatment.22, 23
- Outpatient: This involves attending regularly scheduled appointments at a facility while you can still work, go to school, and live at home, and can vary in intensity depending on your needs.22, 23
- Therapy: This can take place in a group or individual setting, and helps you develop the skills needed to prevent relapse, communicate more effectively, improve your ability to resolve problems, and practice healthy behaviors.4, 5 Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to help you identify triggers and manage them, as well as learn how to cope with your emotions in a healthy way.4, 22 Contingency management (CM) uses tangible rewards to help increase motivation towards staying in treatment and maintaining sobriety.4, 24 Motivational interviewing (MI) is a technique used to help resolve any mixed feelings you may have about treatment and abstinence.22, 24
- Aftercare: This can involve recovery housing, attending self-help meetings, joining alumni groups, and going to individual or group therapy, all of which provide additional support to you after you complete treatment.22
Medications can be used in combination with behavioral therapy to treat AUD. There are three medications that are FDA-approved to treat AUD: acamprosate (Campral), disulfiram (Antabuse), and naltrexone.5 Acamprosate can lessen lingering symptoms of withdrawal, known as protracted withdrawal.22, 23 Disulfiram reduces the body’s ability to metabolize alcohol, causing uncomfortable symptoms if you consume alcohol, such as flushing, nausea, and heart palpitations.22, 23 Naltrexone binds to receptors in the brain that make drinking feel rewarding, and blocks cravings to drink.22, 23
Many addiction treatment plans encourage participation in mutual support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12-Step programs. These allow you to develop a sober network of peers, learn new skills, and receive additional support outside of the treatment setting.5, 25 Studies show that individuals who attend 12-Step meetings have greater levels of long-term sobriety.25
If you are concerned about your alcohol use or that of a loved one, treatment is available. Rehab facilities are located throughout the U.S., and many offer specialized treatment that can cater to individual needs. American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted treatment centers across the country. You can use our treatment directory to find an alcohol use disorder program near you or verify your health insurance coverage using the form below. You can also call us free now at .
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