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The Effects of Alcohol: Dangers and Long-Term Health Risks

Alcohol is one of the most widely used substances in the United States. According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 221.3 million people ages 12 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, 61.2 million people ages 12 and older reported binge drinking in the past month, and 16.1 million people ages 12 and older reported heavy alcohol use in the past month.1 Additionally, more than 29 million people had an alcohol use disorder (AUD), the diagnosis for alcohol addiction.1

Alcohol can produce a wide range of short- and long-term effects on the brain and body.2 This article will help you understand alcohol’s effects on the body, immediate alcohol effects, long-term effects of alcohol, alcohol’s effects on fertility and pregnancy, and getting help for alcohol addiction.

What Does Alcohol Do to the Body?

Alcohol side effects can vary widely from person to person, depending on a range of individual factors, including a person’s gender, the quantity of alcohol they consume, their food consumption, their level of tolerance, medications they use, and how fast they’ve consumed alcohol.3,4

A standard drink contains 14 grams, or 0.6 ounces, of alcohol.5 This is typically found in 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol content), 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol content), 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol content), or 1.5 ounces or a shot of 80-proof (40% alcohol content) distilled spirits or liquor (such as gin, tequila, rum, vodka, whiskey).5 The Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises that adults of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by consuming 2 drinks or less in a day for men or 1 drink or less in a day for women on days when they choose to drink alcohol.2

Binge drinking or heavy alcohol use can raise the risk of many negative health consequences.5 Binge drinking is described as having 4 or more standard drinks for a woman or 5 or more for a man on a single occasion, while heavy or excessive alcohol use refers to 8 or more drinks per week for a woman or 15 or more drinks per week for a man, as well as any alcohol use by pregnant women or those under the age of 21.2,5

Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use can have an impact on every organ and bodily system, including:6,7

  • The brain. Alcohol can disrupt communication in the brain’s pathways, leading to mood and behavioral changes, impaired cognition, and poor coordination.6 Heavy drinking is also associated with an increased risk of hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke.6
  • The heart. Alcohol can impact the cardiovascular system if you drink too much on one occasion as well as if you drink too much over long periods of time.6,7
  • The liver. Excessive alcohol use can stress the liver and lead to various problems, such as steatosis (fatty liver), alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.6,7
  • The pancreas. Your pancreas produces toxic substances in response to alcohol, which can lead to conditions such as acute or chronic pancreatitis, a painful condition that results in pancreatic inflammation and disruptions in digestion.6,7
  • The gastrointestinal system. Alcohol can lead to conditions such as leaky gut, microbial dysbiosis, and colorectal cancer.6
  • Your bones. Alcohol can cause impairments in bone fracture repair and lead to poor bone density.6

Immediate Health Effects of Alcohol

Drinking alcohol results in different immediate, or short-term, health effects, which can depend on the factors mentioned previously, including your overall health, the amount of alcohol you consume, and how fast you consume it, which can impact your blood alcohol concentration (BAC).3,4,8

Your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) refers to the weight of the alcohol contained in a certain volume of blood (which is measured in grams per deciliter).8 A higher BAC can lead to an increase in the immediate effects of alcohol.3,8 These effects include:4

  • Lowered inhibitions.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Motor impairment.
  • Confusion.
  • Memory problems.
  • Concentration problems.

As drinking continues, more serious immediate effects of an alcohol overdose, including coma, breathing problems, and death, can also occur.

The immediate health effects of alcohol can vary by BAC; for example:8

  • A BAC of 0.02 can lead to some loss of judgment and mood alterations.
  • A BAC of 0.05 can lead to exaggerated behaviors, loss of small muscle control (such as problems with focusing your eyes), and a loss of inhibitions.
  • A BAC of 0.08 can lead to poor muscle coordination, impaired judgment, impaired memory, and reduced information processing ability.
  • A BAC of .10 can lead to marked deterioration of reaction time, slurred speech, further impairments in coordination, and slowed thinking.
  • A BAC of .15 can lead to vomiting, significantly reduced muscle control, loss of balance, and significant impairments in driving abilities.

Drinking too much can also lead to hangovers (the symptoms that a person experiences when they’ve had too much to drink).9 Symptoms of a hangover can differ from person to person, but may include:9

  • Anxiety.
  • Fatigue.
  • Headache.
  • Increased blood pressure.
  • Irritability.
  • Muscle aches.
  • Nausea.
  • Sensitivity to light and sound.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Sweating.
  • Thirst.
  • Vertigo.
  • Weakness.

Long-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Misuse

People who chronically drink alcohol place themselves at risk for numerous long-term health consequences.4 These can include:

  • A risk of heart disease. Binge drinking or heavy alcohol use can cause heart damage and lead to conditions such as cardiomyopathy, which means stretching and drooping of heart muscle; arrhythmias, which means an irregular heartbeat; and high blood pressure.6
  • An increased risk of different cancers. This includes mouth, throat, esophagus, liver, and colon cancer.10 Drinking is also associated with breast cancer in women, even at low levels of consumption, as well as prostate cancer in men.10,11
  • Stroke. Binge or heavy alcohol use can increase the risk of ischemic stroke and hemorrhagic stroke.6 Ischemic stroke occurs due to obstruction of a blood vessel in the brain, while hemorrhagic stroke occurs due to a rupture in a weakened blood vessel.12
  • Cognitive impairments and disorders. Dementia, alcohol-related cognitive decline, and brain shrinkage are associated with excessive alcohol use.10,13 People who chronically misuse alcohol also place themselves at risk for Wernicke encephalopathy and Korsakoff syndrome, which causes chronic cognitive changes and decline.14
  • Weakened immune system. Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use can decrease immunity, which can increase the risk of disease and infections like pneumonia.6

Long-term alcohol misuse is also associated with an increased risk of co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, as well as alcohol addiction.2,5

Addiction, in general, is diagnosed as a substance use disorder (SUD), while alcohol addiction is diagnosed as alcohol use disorder (AUD).5,15 Addiction is a chronic medical disease that involves a complex interaction between genetics, the environment, and a person’s life experiences.16 People with alcohol use disorder compulsively use alcohol despite the significant negative consequences.16

Medical professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to assess whether a person has AUD based on a set of specific criteria.17 They determine the severity of a person’s AUD by asking questions about their drinking habits over a 12-month period.17

In addition, people who chronically drink heavy amounts of alcohol can have a risk of alcohol dependence, developing an acute withdrawal syndrome if they suddenly cut down or stop their alcohol intake.15,17 Alcohol withdrawal can result in potentially severe and life-threatening symptoms, including seizures.17 The American Society of Addiction Medicine advises medically supervised withdrawal management for individuals with a risk of moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal.15

Long Term Effects of Alcohol Infographic

How Alcohol Affects Fertility and Pregnancy

There is no known safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy or becoming pregnant.10 Fertility can be negatively impacted by alcohol consumption in both men and women.10,18 Alcohol can have a negative impact on ovarian reserve in women, steroid hormone production, sperm quality and fecundity, the menstrual cycle, erectile dysfunction, and fertility treatments.11,18

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may also increase the risk of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FADS), including the most severe form known as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is associated with intellectual disabilities and birth defects.10 This is completely preventable if a woman avoids alcohol use while becoming pregnant or during pregnancy.10 Alcohol use during pregnancy may also increase the risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).10

Secondary Effects of Alcohol

Secondary effects of alcohol are consequences that can occur in other areas of a person’s life that go beyond the health impacts of alcohol.4 These effects can include social consequences to serious effects like criminality.4 Even binge drinking just once can result in severe and potentially life-changing effects, such as self-harm or car crashes resulting in injury or death.4

Secondary effects of alcohol can include:

  • Unsafe sexual behavior, resulting in unwanted pregnancy or contraction of infectious diseases.2,4
  • Car crashes, which can be fatal to you or others.2
  • Other potentially fatal accidents and injuries, such as drowning, falls, burns, or firearm injuries.2,5
  • Violence, including suicide, homicide, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence.2
  • Social problems such as family or relationship issues, job problems, job loss, or unemployment.2
  • Legal consequences, such as incarceration or DUIs.19
  • Financial problems, including reduced or total loss of income and poverty.19

Getting Help for Alcohol Addiction

If you or a loved one are struggling with controlling alcohol use or are worried you may have an alcohol addiction, you should know that treatment can help.20

Generally speaking, the addiction treatment process begins with detox, followed by some form of rehab and aftercare to help prevent relapse.20

Treatment can involve:

  • Medical detox, which involves medically supervised withdrawal management to help people safely and comfortably undergo withdrawal.15 It may involve medications to minimize withdrawal symptoms and associated concerns, as well as medical supervision and support.15,20
  • Inpatient addiction treatment, which involves living onsite at a rehab facility for the duration of treatment. People receive 24/7 care and support and participate in a variety of therapies.21
  • Outpatient addiction treatment programs, which allow people to continue living at home and travel to a rehab facility on a set schedule to receive treatment.21
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders treatment, which can increase a person’s recovery success.21
  • Behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, or contingency management, which help individuals make positive life changes, reinforce behavioral change, teach relapse prevention skills, and help people modify their attitudes about their alcohol use.20
  • Mutual support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which provide social support and camaraderie with others who are also in recovery.22

Detox and treatment can help people stop using alcohol, resume healthier lives, and enter recovery.20 It’s always a good idea to consult your doctor or another qualified treatment professional to discuss your condition and unique concerns so you can make the best treatment decisions for your needs.

If you’d like to start the treatment process, learn more about rehab, discuss payment options, or verify your insurance, call our free, confidential helpline at to speak with a caring admissions navigator any time of day or night. You can find a rehab near you using our online directories tool. You can also easily verify your insurance online to check your health insurance coverage for addiction treatment.

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