Understanding the Dangerous Effects of Alcoholism

Liver damage, heart disease, weakened immune system, and cancers are a few of the known harmful effects of misusing alcohol.1 These effects happen to the body, but many other areas of your life can face danger when you have alcohol use disorder. The good news is that most of these adverse effects of alcoholism are reversible and treatable when you stop consuming alcohol. The even greater news is that treatments for quitting alcohol are advancing and more accessible than ever before. Whether you choose inpatient or outpatient, there is hope for recovery.

What are the Harmful Effects of Alcoholism?

Having alcohol use disorder means you find it difficult, maybe impossible, to quit misusing alcohol even though your continued alcohol consumption is causing problems in your personal, professional, and social relationships.2

Short-Term Side Effects of Alcoholism

Sometimes you consume much more alcohol than you intend, and doing so may lead to short-term, harmful effects of alcoholism, including:3,4,5,6,7

  • Poor decision-making, such as putting yourself in risky situations like drinking or doing drugs while driving
  • Blackouts and memory problems
  • Unintentional accidents and injuries
  • Increased aggression, violence, and suicidality
  • Alcohol intolerance, including a stuffy nose and skin flushing, due to an allergy to the ingredients in alcohol or interaction between alcohol and another medicine you take either for mental or physical conditions
  • Alcohol poisoning or overdose, causing impaired motor skills, slurred speech, mood changes, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, double vision, and involuntary eye movements, and fatal consequences
  • Hangovers, characterized by nausea, vomiting, shakiness, headaches, and dry mouth, as well as alcohol withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, depression, and seizures

Long-Term Effects of Alcoholism

Chronic alcohol misuse can lead to long-term effects of alcoholism on the body, health, career, personal relationships, and overall ability to function. Long-term effects of alcoholism may include:3

  • Cancers of the liver, breast, larynx, pharynx, colorectum, and esophagus
  • Nutritional deficiencies including thiamine, vitamin B, folate
  • Nerve damage
  • Mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety
  • Damage to the heart
  • Impaired functioning of major organs
  • Memory problems
  • Seizures
  • Legal problems such as DUI, fines, and criminal convictions
  • Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia, and HIV
  • Unintentional and intentional injuries due to falls, traffic accidents, assaults, etc.
  • Physical ailments like diabetes
  • Liver diseases, such as cirrhosis and fatty liver
  • Degeneration of the nervous system
  • Overdose, fatal and nonfatal

Alcohol use disorder is a progressive condition, which means it tends to worsen over time if left untreated. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms and long-term effects of alcoholism can become severe and cause significant impairment and distress.

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Withdrawal Risk

You risk withdrawal whether you have alcohol use disorder or misuse alcohol in another way, such as binge drinking. However, chronic alcohol misuse can lead to physiological dependence. The body and brain become so used to having alcohol in the system that you need to keep drinking to function optimally. Withdrawal symptoms and side effects of alcoholism are how you know your body is dependent on alcohol. The DSM-5 or Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, states two conditions represent withdrawal syndrome:8

1. Evidence that proves you have stopped consuming alcohol or, for those with heavy misuse, evidence of a significant reduction in alcohol consumption
2. Symptoms are not due to some other disorder, whether it be mental, physical, or behavioral.

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms and effects of alcoholism on the body fall into four categories, including the following:8,9

  • Autonomic symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, excessive sweating, dilated pupils, digestive problems, and increased blood pressure or body temperature
  • Motor symptoms, including tremors, seizures, impaired coordination, overactive reflexes, slurred speech, and trouble walking
  • Awareness symptoms, such as confusion, disorientation, and agitation
  • Psychiatric symptoms may include delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, rapid mood swings, and inappropriate behaviors

Withdrawal seizures and delirium tremens are the most dangerous effects of alcoholism. They represent disturbances in your nervous system that can lead to further complications, including injuries due to falls. Some can be so severe they lead to coma or death.9

Who is at Risk for Alcohol Severe Withdrawal?

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms vary among those who misuse alcohol. Reasons for the variances include age, gender, length of alcohol misuse, amount consumed, blood alcohol concentration, medical conditions, and many other factors. Some groups are at higher risk than others. Predictors of severe withdrawal effects of alcoholism on the body include:10

  • Having withdrawal symptoms and side effects of alcoholism in the past when trying to quit drinking
  • Being older
  • Having undiagnosed medical conditions
  • Having low sodium and potassium levels
  • Being dehydrated
  • Experiencing abnormal liver functioning

These risks may be present without your knowledge. When your focus is on maintaining alcohol misuse, it is typically not on taking care of your physical and mental health. It is critical to seek a safe withdrawal from alcohol for these reasons.

Medical Detox and Alcoholism Treatment

Once you obtain a diagnosis of alcohol withdrawal syndrome, your doctor will determine the most appropriate treatment path. Because of the potential alcohol withdrawal risks like seizures and long-term effects of alcoholism, medical detox is recommended to ensure patient safety and comfort.10

Medical detox takes place in a hospital setting, within a free-standing detox center, or as part of an addiction treatment program. Doctors, nurses, technicians, and therapists provide round-the-clock care to ensure you are minimally affected by withdrawal symptoms or cravings related to alcohol. Medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are a big part of medical detox. They are effective in easing withdrawal symptoms and side effects of alcoholism and encourage you to stay in treatment long enough to learn recovery skills.11,12

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are sedatives with a similar mechanism of action to alcohol. However, when used under strict medical supervision, they are an excellent choice for managing withdrawal and the side effects of alcoholism. Research shows that benzodiazepines reduce withdrawal seizures and delirium tremens, as well as agitation. Doctors may choose a fixed-dose, symptom-triggered, or loading dose regimen.11

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Alcoholism Treatment

Medical detox can last anywhere from one week to several weeks. Once complete, your body will be free of alcohol. Completing alcohol detox does not mean you are in recovery, which is a process and not an event. To maintain abstinence, treatment for alcohol use disorder is essential.

Medication management continues during treatment and upon completion of a treatment program so you can stay focused on learning recovery skills. There are multiple levels of alcohol treatment, including:13

  • Inpatient rehab provides continued 24/hour monitoring in a hospital setting by doctors and medical staff. You receive medication management, individual and group counseling, and 12-Step facilitation. In addition, you can participate in family therapy, recovery support services, and alternative therapies.
  • Partial-hospitalization programs (PHP) are day treatment programs that operate 20 or more hours each week, providing structured recovery activities like individual and group counseling, medication management, and 12 Step groups. The only significant difference between PHP and inpatient rehab is that you do not stay overnight.
  • Intensive outpatient programs (IOP) resemble PHPs, except services are provided less time each week, with a minimum of 9 hours but no more than 20.

Alcoholism treatment promotes positive changes through the techniques used at all levels. Methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), contingency management, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness-based practices help people reach recovery success. These techniques teach the crucial skills needed to stay sober, such as relapse prevention, communication, conflict resolution, and relationship building.13 There are certain alcohol addiction treatment medications that can be used in combination with therapies to provide patients with comprehensive care.

Acamprosate

Acamprosate is a drug that helps reduce the desire to consume alcohol. You must detox from alcohol before you start taking the medication for it to work.

Disulfiram

Disulfiram, which is only for post-withdrawal use, causes negative physical reactions if you choose to consume alcohol while taking the medication. Vomiting, rapid heartbeat, nausea, and flushing are the most common reactions. The theory behind the use of this medication is that the thought and fear of being physically ill will deter someone from consuming alcohol.

Naltrexone

Naltrexone is a medication often used to treat alcohol use disorder, after withdrawal has resolved. This medication binds to receptors in the brain that block feelings of pleasure and reward. If you consume alcohol while taking this medicine, you will not feel the effects of the alcohol. It also greatly reduces cravings for alcohol.

Find Alcohol Addiction Rehab

With treatment, you can learn to live an alcohol-free life. To start this process, you will need an assessment from a licensed substance use professional to develop a treatment plan for medical detox and continued care.

We can connect you with a treatment facility with qualified professionals to assess your needs. Give us a call at 800-598-5053 (Who Answers?) , and we will direct you to the best. We are here 24/7, so feel free to call day or night to speak with a treatment support specialist.

Resources

  1. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body.
  2. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.
  3. Rehm J. (2011). The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism. Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 34(2), 135-143.
  4. National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. (2021). Acute Alcohol Sensitivity.
  5. LaHood AJ, Kok SJ. (2021). Ethanol Toxicity. StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
  6. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.
  7. Verster, J. C., Scholey, A., van de Loo, A., Benson, S., & Stock, A. K. (2020). Updating the Definition of the Alcohol Hangover. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 9(3), 823.
  8. Elliott, D.Y. MSN, RN. (2019). Caring for Hospitalized Patients with Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. Nursing Critical Care, 14(5), 18-30.
  9. U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). Delirium Tremens. MedlinePlus.
  10. Kattimani, S., & Bharadwaj, B. (2013). Clinical Management of Alcohol Withdrawal: A Systematic Review. Industrial Psychiatry Journal, 22(2), 100-108.
  11. Sachdeva, A., Choudhary, M., & Chandra, M. (2015). Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond. Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 9(9), VE01-VE07.
  12. Witkiewitz, K., Litten, R. Z., & Leggio, L. (2019). Advances in the Science and Treatment of Alcohol Use Disorder. Science Advances, 5(9), eaax4043.
  13. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). What Types of Alcohol Treatment Are Available?

Resources

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