The Effects of Alcohol: Short and Long-Term Dangers
Alcohol is a legal substance for people over the age of 21 in the United States and is generally socially acceptable and widely enjoyed by millions of people. While it is possible to safely enjoy alcohol on occasion, many people struggle with alcohol misuse and addiction. According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 28.3 million people in the U.S. met the criteria for an alcohol use disorder.1
Many people, including those who do not struggle with alcohol misuse or addiction, are unaware of the dangers alcohol poses, and the type of short- and long-term effects alcohol can have. This page will help you to understand what alcohol does to the body, the short- and long-term effects of alcohol, and what to do if you or your loved one is struggling with alcohol misuse or addiction.
What Does Alcohol Do to the Body?
Alcohol can affect people in several ways, impacting behavior, mood, coordination, and thinking.2 It is important to note that no two people are the same, and people experience different effects from drinking and levels of intensity. Several factors can impact the potential for adverse effects of alcohol. These factors that impact the effects of alcohol include:3
- Gender, as alcohol generally affects women more intensely and at a faster rate than men.
- Mental status or mood can affect how alcohol impacts a person, as mood or mental status can trigger someone to drink more alcohol than intended.
- How many drinks a person consumes in a certain period.
- The tolerance a person has to alcohol, as someone who drinks frequently can appear to be in control of their actions and get intoxicated more slowly. However, someone who rarely drinks can be intoxicated after only a couple of drinks, as they have a lower tolerance compared to someone who drinks alcohol regularly.
- Other substances that a person consumes, whether legal or illegal, can affect how they react to alcohol.
- Whether or not the person has eaten recently, as food can lessen the effects of alcohol.
Regardless of how intensely or how quickly alcohol may affect a person, there are numerous side effects of alcohol use, both in the short and long term.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol
When you drink, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) begins to rise.4 When you reach a BAC of 0.08, you are legally intoxicated by the standards of most state laws.4
There is a gender difference as, for most men, it takes 5 standard drinks within 2 hours to get your BAC to 0.08, and for women, it usually takes 4 standard drinks.4 It is important to keep in mind that this is a rough estimate. A standard drink contains 1.2 tablespoons (0.6 fluid ounces) of alcohol. This amount of alcohol is found in 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of hard liquor, or 5 ounces of wine.4
Typically, when you start drinking, the impact may be minimal at first. When you reach a blood alcohol level (BAC) of up to 0.05, you typically will feel effects from alcohol such as:4
- Feel relaxed
- Feel sleepy
- Experience some minor issues with attention, coordination, memory, and speech
As you keep drinking and reach a BAC of 0.06 to 0.15, you may experience alcohol effects like:
- Increased aggression
- Moderate issues with attention, coordination, memory, and speech.
- Being too impaired to drive safely
- Having a higher risk of injury to yourself and others.
Once you reach a BAC of 0.16 to 0.30, you may:
- Have significant issues with attention, coordination, memory, and speech.
- Be unable to drive with any degree of safety.
- Have very poor judgment and decision-making abilities.
- Pass out
- Get blackout drunk
At a BAC of 0.31 or higher, you are likely to lose consciousness and are in danger of experiencing a life-threatening alcohol overdose.4 Even a few drinks can result in potentially dangerous outcomes that can include:5
- Aggression towards other people.
- Being more likely to have a car accident, resulting in severe harm or even death.
- Being more prone to falling, which can result in various injuries, some of which can be serious.
- Suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth if you are pregnant.
- Being more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors because of lowered inhibitions. These risky sexual behaviors can result in getting an STD or becoming pregnant.
Whenever a person consumes enough alcohol to reach a BAC of 0.31, alcohol poisoning is a real possibility.4 An alcohol overdose can occur when there is more alcohol in a person’s bloodstream than can be absorbed, and the areas of the brain that control breathing, body temperature, and heart rate, are overwhelmed and shut down.4
An overdose is more likely to occur when a person is using other substances, including prescription medications, such as opioids, or even over-the-counter medications.4 Anytime that your BAC goes over 0.08, you are at risk.4 The symptoms can include confusion, extreme drowsiness, seizures, cold skin, slow pulse, and shallow breathing.4 If you suspect someone has overdosed, call 911.
Long-Term Effects of Alcohol
When regular drinking continues over an extended period of time, new issues can arise. The long-term effects of alcohol can ultimately result in serious physical health problems that can in some cases have fatal consequences. Some long-term effects of alcohol misuse can include:5, 6
- Significantly higher risk of cancer, including oral, throat, stomach, colon, and breast cancer.
- Increased risk of cardiac issues, including high blood pressure and higher rates of strokes.
- Higher risk of liver disease, such as cirrhosis.
- Anxiety and depression related to alcohol use.
- Fertility and pregnancy issues.
- Erectile Dysfunction from alcohol use
- A weakened immune system, resulting in a higher chance of getting ill.
- Impairment in a person’s social and occupational life.
- Memory loss and increased risk of dementia.
- Alcohol dependence
- Alcohol use disorder
With continued, long-term drinking, there is an increased risk for the alcohol user. Long-term drinking may also connect with heavy drinking, which is typically 15 drinks or more per week for men and 8 drinks or more per week for women.7 Long-term and heavy drinking make both short-term and long-term effects and issues more likely, and if the issues are ignored, they can become even worse.
Alcohol and Fertility
Alcohol intake, especially chronic consumption, may lead to changes in ovulation and menstrual cycle regularity, which may indicate that alcohol affects fertility. 11 Heavy alcohol use may impact the egg quality and number available in the ovaries, as well as the likelihood of conceiving within a monthly cycle.11 Alcohol and erectile dysfunction may also be connected, as some studies have shown the possibility of erectile dysfunction from alcohol abuse and acute intoxication—potentially leading to problems conceiving.11
Secondary Effects of Alcohol
Alcohol use doesn’t just affect a person’s physical health—alcohol can have several secondary effects that can impact a person’s life. Even binge drinking just once can lead to serious consequences such as driving under the influence or an alcohol overdose.
People who misuse alcohol in the short- and long-term can experience a variety of social harm due to drinking. This can include:8
- Problems with relationships including family and friends.
- Problems at work, including difficulty holding employment due to high rates of absenteeism or drinking on the job.
- Legal problems.
- Financial problems.
Getting Help for Misuse or Addiction
No matter how problematic you think your relationship with alcohol may be, alcohol use disorder is treatable, and there are numerous alcohol addiction treatment programs that can help you stop drinking and find recovery.9
It is important to get help before your issues with alcohol get worse. Additionally, once you are dependent on alcohol, it becomes more difficult to stop drinking—even when serious health issues arise. This is where professional care and treatment can help.
If you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, see your doctor at the first sign of a problem. In addition, you should work on cutting back on your drinking. While you should stop drinking if you have a problem, you should not stop cold turkey, as there can be uncomfortable, painful, or potentially dangerous side effects from alcohol withdrawal that may occur. In order to stop drinking safely, professional medical detox from alcohol can help keep you safe and comfortable.
If you are seeking treatment for yourself or your loved one, you can find out more about alcohol addiction when you contact American Addiction Centers by calling . You can speak to an admissions navigator who can hear your story, provide information about rehab programs, and verify your insurance.
FAQs on the Effects of Alcohol
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