Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Brain & Body

Alcohol abuse has many psychological and physiological effects which can vary widely based on a person’s chemical makeup and level of consumption. The stigma surrounding alcoholism and other substance addictions can also make it difficult for a loved one to open up. Looking out for common signs and symptoms related to alcohol abuse can help loved ones better recognize and support those in need.

For help understanding symptoms call The Hope House addiction specialists.

“Alcohol abuse is the consumption of alcohol that can put the user at an increased risk of health or social consequences.” -CDC 

What to Look For

For those concerned themselves or their loved one may be abusing alcohol, there are some noticeable physical signs of alcohol abuse.

While this list of symptoms may be useful outward indicators of a drinking problem, signs of alcohol abuse go much deeper and may only be noticeable by the drinker themselves.

It’s best to meet with your primary care physician or an addiction specialist for an accurate analysis of your situation.

Physical Signs of Alcoholism

  • Frequent smell of alcohol on the breath
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Dry skin, hair, and brittle nails (often present due to the dehydrating effects of alcohol)
  • Broken capillaries on the nose and face
  • Poor hygiene
  • Weight loss/loss of appetite
  • Yellow eyes or skin (often due to liver damage)
  • Tremors or loss of balance

Are You Experiencing the Effects of Alcohol? We can help.

The American Psychiatric Association describes 11 symptoms of alcohol abuse. These symptoms are not always visible to others and someone could experience alcoholism without showing any of the signs listed.

Based on which of the 11 symptoms someone confirms they are experiencing they will be categorized as having mild, moderate, or severe Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD).

What are the 11 symptoms of alcoholism?

  1. Drinking more than intended
  2. Inability to reduce or stop drinking
  3. Spending a significant amount of time drinking
  4. Focusing solely on the desire to drink
  5. Drinking to a level that interferes with professional or familial obligations
  6. Continuing to drink despite trouble/criticism from family and friends
  7. Giving up pleasurable activities to continue drinking
  8. Experiencing an increased risk of physical harm due to drinking
  9. Continuing to drink despite health issues or memory loss
  10. Developing a tolerance to alcohol
  11. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms once you’ve stopped drinking

Stages of Alcohol Use Disorder

Mild

Mild

2-3 symptoms are present

Moderate

Moderate

4-5 symptoms are present

Severe

Severe

6 or more symptoms are present

If you are trying to assess if you or a loved one has an alcohol problem, there are multiple screening tests available to do so – in an informal manner.

These tests should not be considered a final diagnosis, but rather a starting point to determine if help is needed. Our clinical team at The Hope House is trained to assess alcohol addiction and other substance use disorders and give you a medical diagnosis. If you need a formal assessment, contact our clinical team today.

Popular Alcohol Addiction Tests

AUDIT

AUDIT

Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test

MAST

MAST

Michigan Alcohol Screening Test

CAGE

CAGE

An acronym for the 4 questions asked in the assessment

Are You Experiencing the Effects of Alcohol? We can help.

As people move from mild to severe AUD, their bodies and brains will experience significant effects of alcohol abuse that may show up quickly, or gradually appear as a more long-term effect.

 

If drinking occurs infrequently, these symptoms may come and go without permanently damaging the body. However, just one night of excessive drinking or prolonged exposure to the effects of alcohol abuse can lead to serious health problems.

Short-Term Physical Effects

  • Loss of coordination
  • Reduced body temperature
  • High blood pressure
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vomiting
  • Alcohol poisoning

What is Alcohol Poisoning?

Alcohol poisoning, also known as an alcohol overdose, is a major health risk caused by heavy drinking that can result in permanent brain damage or even death. “Alcohol overdose occurs when there is so much alcohol in the bloodstream that areas in the brain controlling basic life-support functions – such as breathing, heart rate, and temperature control – begin to shut down.” – NIAAA

Common Symptoms of Alcohol Poisoning

Mental <br/> Confusion

Mental
Confusion

Excessive <br/> Vomiting

Excessive
Vomiting

Alcoholic <br/> Seizures

Alcoholic
Seizures

Breathing <br/> Problems

Breathing
Problems

Slow Heart <br/> Rate

Slow Heart
Rate

Risk Factors of Alcohol Poisoning

Risk factors associated with alcohol overdose include age, sensitivity to alcohol, gender, speed of drinking, medications being taken, and more.

Some of the seemingly lesser short-term effects of alcohol abuse, like loss of coordination, can act as a catalyst. A significant fall while intoxicated can land someone in a hospital bed and may result in lasting complications.

Long-Term Physical Effects

While short-term effects of alcohol can lead to many potential issues, the long-term effects of alcohol abuse on the body demonstrate just how harmful alcohol can be.

Liver Damage

The liver is the most affected organ in the body as it is responsible for breaking down alcohol. Typically, younger/newer drinkers will not experience liver issues as the body can compensate for a time. However, ongoing alcohol abuse is likely to lead to Alcoholic Liver Disease (ALD).   

ALD refers to a spectrum of many different issues with the liver that develop over time. In the final phases of ALD, a person will develop liver cirrhosis which can lead to problems including:

  • Swelling of the abdomen or legs
  • Liver cancer
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney failure
Heart Damage

Drinking a lot over a long period of time, or in some cases too much on a single occasion, can lead to major heart problems.

The most common issues include:

  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Arrhythmia
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart failure

A comprehensive analysis of research linking heart failure and alcohol found that people who consume 14 or more drinks each week are up to 10% more likely to experience heart failure – and people who consume 21 or more drinks weekly are up to 48% more likely to experience heart failure than non-drinkers.

Alcoholic Cancer

One long-term physical effect of alcohol abuse is the increased likelihood of cancer. Alcohol is a known human carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) and can increase an individual’s risk of many different types of cancer including:

  • Oral cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

Evidence has shown that the more a person drinks, especially over time, the more likely they are to develop a form of alcohol-related cancer.

20,000 people die each year from alcoholic cancer. – Cancer.gov

Short-Term Mental Effects of Alcohol

Drinking alcohol, even in moderation, can have potentially harmful effects on the brain. While these effects of alcohol abuse may be harder to spot, they are equally as dangerous as the physical effects.

It is important to understand that not everyone who experiences these short-term effects of alcohol have Alcohol Use Disorder. Moreover, these short-term effects do not only occur in alcoholics.

When consumed in large amounts, alcohol acts as a depressant – slowing brain activity and even “turning off” critical sections of the brain. Decision making and self-control occurs in the cerebral cortex of the brain (the frontal lobe). This portion of the brain is severely impacted by excessive alcohol consumption.

Drunk driving is one of the most common forms of poor decision-making that occurs when drinking. Drunk drivers have much worse reaction time, reasoning, and coordination which can lead to deadly consequences. In fact, almost 30 people die every day from a drunk driving incident in the United States.

blackout is a period of time where an individual has no recollection of details of events, or entire events. This is typically caused because alcohol levels are so high, they have begun affecting the hippocampus — the portion of the brain responsible for short term memory. The presence of alcohol stops neurons from firing and thus, no new memories are formed — leaving a “black hole” in someone’s timeline.

Blackouts are most common after binge drinking – quickly elevating blood alcohol contents. These problems can be exacerbated if drinking on an empty stomach.  Blackouts mixed with lapses in judgement can lead to an increased risk of things like drunk driving, unprotected sex, vandalism, and more.

When it comes to mental illness and alcoholism, there is often a chicken-egg dilemma at play — it can be hard to tell which came first. It is common for alcoholism, and substance abuse in general, to be accompanied by a mental health problem, this is called a dual diagnosis (or co-occurring disorder).

Regardless, drinking will only exacerbate these mental health problems.

Long-Term Mental Effects

Long-term mental health effects are generally issues that affect alcoholics who have been drinking excessively for years. While you or your loved one may not immediately face these problems, understanding the consequences of drinking and the effects of alcohol abuse are vital if you intend to make a change.

WKS is actually the dual presentation of two distinct syndromes – both of which occur due to a deficiency of thiamine (vitamin B1). WKS is often characterized as a neurological disease where the person experiences:

  • Confusion
  • Lack of coordination
  • Eye abnormalities
  • Significant memory loss

Upwards of 80% of people with AUD have a thiamine deficiency and most cases of WKS in the U.S. are related to alcohol abuse. If caught early, significant reversal can occur; however, severe cases often cause lasting, noticeable cognitive impairment.

HE is a chronic brain disorder associated with liver cirrhosis. Essentially, the liver is no longer able to break down specific toxins which results in the toxins entering the brain. The most common symptoms include:

  • Changing sleep patterns
  • Confusion
  • Personality and mood changes
  • Poor judgement
  • Seizures

People dealing with HE can even become unconscious and go into a coma.

Whether the problem is alcoholic cancer, drunk driving, Hepatic Encephalopathy, or something else, alcohol presents many short-term and long-term health issues that can lead to deadly consequences.

These issues are common among those abusing alcohol, but help preventing or even reversing some of these effects is possible.

Programs like alcohol detox and alcohol inpatient rehab exist to help those who have fallen victim to alcoholism get back on their feet and learn how to live a life free from alcohol and the effects of alcohol abuse.

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