Now Accepting Blue Cross Blue Shield. Call Today!

Alcohol’s Effects on the Body & Its Dangers

Last Updated: November 3, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Often, people think alcohol's dangers are due to prolonged, heavy use, but alcohol can also lead to dangerous or even deadly short-term effects.

Alcohol can seem like innocent fun, providing a way to relax and unwind by yourself or with others. However, the truth is that alcohol holds several hidden dangers. It can create short and long-term effects that can cause permanent harm, lower your quality of life and even shorten your lifespan. It is important for anyone using alcohol to understand the dangerous effects it has on your body.

What Does Alcohol Do to Your Body?

When you consume alcohol, it quickly enters your bloodstream and affects almost every system in your body. The liver metabolizes alcohol, breaking it down so it can be eliminated; however, this process happens slowly, leaving alcohol in your bloodstream for several hours. 

While alcohol can affect your mood, cognition, heart rate, digestion and more, its most noticeable effects occur in the brain. Most people who use alcohol do so because of its effect on receptors in the brain called GABA receptors. Alcohol stimulates these receptors, leading to suppressed brain activity. This results in the pleasurable relaxation alcohol causes but also has many other potential effects. 

[rehab-location-widget]

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body

Many people think of the dangers of alcohol in the context of prolonged, heavy alcohol use. Alcohol can, however, lead to short-term effects that can be dangerous or even deadly.

Cognitive and Psychological Effects

Alcohol is a depressant, meaning it slows down your central nervous system. This slowing can lead to the cognitive effects most people anticipate when using alcohol, including slurred speech, slower reaction times and impaired memory. Psychological effects can include euphoria, increased aggression and emotional volatility.

While alcohol causes several hallmark cognitive effects, it has some more ominous short-term effects. Up to half of traumatic brain injuries occur because someone was under the influence of alcohol. This results in permanent brain damage that can affect you for the rest of your life. 

Cardiac Issues

Even a single episode of heavy drinking can put stress on your heart and lead to an irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure. While some people believe certain types of alcohol can be "heart-healthy," the risks often outweigh the benefits, especially when consumed in large quantities.

Heavy drinking can also result in alcohol poisoning. This condition suppresses your brain to the point where it cannot keep you alive, stopping your breathing and eventually causing your heart to stop. A single episode of drinking can result in cardiac arrest if alcohol poisoning occurs.

Digestive Issues

If you’ve ever used alcohol, you’ve experienced the burning sensation it causes as you drink it. This sensation is caused by alcohol irritating your digestive system. This can lead to issues like acid reflux and gastritis. In the short term, this can also cause nausea and vomiting. 

Kidney Function

Your kidneys are responsible for filtering waste products from your blood. Consuming alcohol puts additional strain on these vital organs as they work to remove the alcohol from your bloodstream. 

Using alcohol also stimulates your kidneys to produce more urine and simultaneously stimulates the release of hormones that tell the kidneys to produce less urine. This causes conflicting signals that create extra stress on the kidneys. Ultimately, the signals to increase urine production win out, potentially leading to dehydration that can further strain the kidneys.

Liver Function

Your liver is the primary organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol. Short-term effects on the liver from a single episode of drinking are not likely to cause liver disease but can impair its function. Taking a medication or using another substance can also affect the liver’s ability to process alcohol and lead to artificially elevated levels of other drugs, potentially causing harm.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body

While alcohol can have several dangerous short-term effects on the body, using alcohol heavily for prolonged periods can increase your risk of many diseases. Unlike the short-term effects of alcohol, which often resolve quickly, long-term effects can lead to chronic conditions and affect you throughout your life.

Heart Damage

Chronic heavy drinking poses serious risks to your heart health. It can lead to chronic high blood pressure and cardiomyopathy, ultimately increasing your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Over time, the effects accumulate, reducing the heart's efficiency and making it more susceptible to disease.

Brain Health Risks

Chronic alcohol use increases the risk of several conditions affecting your brain health. These include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease: Alcohol use increases your long-term risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and the dementia that it causes.
  • Traumatic brain injury: A single episode of drinking can lead to a traumatic brain injury; however, drinking repeatedly for years statistically increases this risk dramatically.
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome: Alcohol affects your body’s ability to absorb vitamin B1 (thiamine), a nutrient essential to brain health. Low levels of thiamine lead to inflammation in the brain, which can result in permanent memory loss and brain damage.
  • Decreased brain volume: Over time, heavy alcohol use has been shown to cause your brain to physically shrink, becoming smaller and less able to function effectively.

Liver Disease

When you use alcohol heavily for a prolonged period, it increases your risk of developing alcohol-related liver disease. Liver disease caused by alcohol typically progresses through three distinct phases:

  • Hepatic steatosis: Also called fatty liver disease, this condition occurs because alcohol causes your liver to build up fatty deposits. This often doesn’t cause many symptoms besides general fatigue but sets the stage for the next phase of liver disease.
  • Hepatitis: Hepatitis is simply a term that describes inflammation of the liver. While a virus can cause it, it can also be caused by the fatty deposits alcohol can cause. Unlike hepatic steatosis, hepatitis often causes serious liver symptoms, increasing your risk of bleeding and building up toxins in your blood.
  • Cirrhosis: Cirrhosis is scarring of the liver, often caused by inflammation. Unlike hepatitis, which can go away if you stop using alcohol, any scarring to the liver is permanent. Cirrhosis causes permanent liver damage that will seriously affect your health and cannot be cured without a liver transplant.

Pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is a common problem with long-term alcohol use and is thought to occur because alcohol can block the ducts leading out of the pancreas. The pancreas creates enzymes that help break down fat and food. When these enzymes become trapped in the pancreas, they digest the pancreas itself instead, leading to inflammation and impaired pancreas function.

Pancreatitis is very painful and often requires hospital care. Because the pancreas creates and releases enzymes in response to food, especially food that contains fat, eating can cause the symptoms of pancreatitis to become worse. It can be necessary to minimize food content during an episode of pancreatitis, and it will typically be necessary to stay in a hospital until it resolves.

Immune Health Risks

Alcohol compromises your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections. Regularly consuming alcohol makes it difficult for your body to ward off diseases, leaving you vulnerable to illnesses. Those who drink heavily and consistently will generally find that they come down with infections and colds more easily and more frequently than others.

Increased Risk of Cancer

Chronic alcohol use increases your risk of developing several different types of cancer. These include:

  • Mouth cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Voice box cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer

Ongoing research continues to find other forms of cancer that alcohol use is connected with, and the risk of developing cancer when using alcohol heavily is high.

Drinking During Pregnancy

Using alcohol during pregnancy can affect not only your own body but the body of your developing child. Using alcohol during pregnancy while your baby’s vital organs develop can cause fetal alcohol syndrome, leading to developmental delays, intellectual disabilities and physical deformities.

There is no safe amount of alcohol you can use while pregnant, and drinking before you know you are pregnant can still affect your child if you have conceived. For these reasons, medical professionals highly recommend that women who want to be pregnant or may become pregnant abstain from alcohol. This is the only way to ensure your child doesn’t develop fetal alcohol syndrome.

Get Help Quitting Drinking at The Recovery Village Atlanta

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol abuse, it’s never too late to seek help. Even if you’ve developed negative health consequences from using alcohol, stopping can improve your health and potentially reverse or minimize the effect alcohol has had on your body.

At The Recovery Village Atlanta, we understand how difficult it can be to overcome alcohol addiction. We offer a range of programs designed to help you quit and ensure long-term recovery. Our caring staff are committed to your success and will support you each step of the way. Contact us today to learn how we can help you on your journey to lasting freedom from addiction.

FAQs on Alcohol Health Risks

Does alcohol cause inflammation?

Yes, alcohol can cause inflammation. This effect of alcohol is one of the primary factors that create many of the health conditions alcohol can cause. The inflammatory effect of alcohol can also make pre-existing conditions worse and contribute to a host of health issues.

Does alcohol weaken the immune system? 

Yes, alcohol weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to infections and making it harder for your body to recover from illnesses. A single episode of drinking can temporarily suppress your immune system; however, chronic alcohol use causes it to be suppressed for a prolonged period.

What are the risks involved with teen alcohol use?

During the teenage years, the brain is still developing and learning in a way that it doesn’t after you reach adulthood. Teen alcohol use can have a long-term impact on brain health and is associated with developmental issues, impaired judgment, a higher risk of accidents and an increased likelihood of developing alcohol addiction later in life. This is why alcohol use before adulthood is prohibited in most countries.

Does alcohol have any positive health effects?

While some studies have suggested that moderate consumption of certain types of alcohol, like red wine, can have cardiovascular benefits, the correlation between drinking alcohol and health benefits has not been established. Additionally, the risks associated with alcohol consumption have been shown to outweigh any potential benefits it may or may not bring.

Sources

MedlinePlus. “Alcohol.” March 22, 2022. Accessed August 24, 2023.

Davies, Martin. “The role of GABAA receptors in mediating the effects of alcohol in the central nervous system.” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. July 2008. Accessed August 24, 2023.

Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center. “Alcohol Use After Traumatic Brain Injury.” 2011. Accessed August 24, 2023.

Drinkaware. “Alcohol and blood pressure.” October 27, 2021. Accessed August 24, 2023.

National Kidney Foundation. “Drinking Alcohol Affects Your Kidneys.” August 12, 2014. Accessed August 24, 2023.

Shaaban, Adnan; Gangwani, Manesh Kumar; & et al. “Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy.” StatPearls. August 8, 2023. Accessed August 24, 2023.

NHS. “Alcohol-related liver disease.” September 20, 2022. Accessed August 24, 2023.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Alcohol and Cancer.” March 13, 2023. Accessed August 24, 2023.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Basics about FASDs.” November 4, 2022. Accessed August 24, 2023.