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What Are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse?
The effects of alcohol abuse are both immediate and long-lasting. Whether you’re drinking for the first time or have been drinking daily for decades, alcohol has a pronounced effect on the body. Not only does excessive alcohol put you at risk of a number of potentially deadly consequences while you are actively intoxicated, but long-term abuse can cause a number of serious medical, financial, and relationship hardships.
Immediate Effects of Alcohol Abuse
Within five to ten minutes of drinking alcohol, you might experience feelings of
- Slowed breathing
- Blurred vision
As this is happening, alcohol enters your bloodstream through your stomach and small intestine (the effects begin peaking after 30 minutes). Its chemicals reach the brain and begin disrupting its normal function. Alcohol is a mood changer and delays the information sent to the brain (i.e. when to stop). Alcohol lowers judgment and increases reaction time, meaning that individuals who are “drunk” are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and suffer accidents and other negative consequences.
At the liver, alcohol is filtered at a rate of about one drink per hour. The alcohol is processed into water, carbon dioxide, and energy for the body. Too much alcohol causes a backup of fat in the liver, leading to hepatitis. The kidneys then must work harder to process the alcohol to be excreted as urine. Alcohol also leaves the body through the lungs (about 8% is exhaled – this is how breathalyzers work). Some alcohol also evaporates through the skin.
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Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse
The long-term abuse of alcohol can negatively impact the brain, heart, liver, and pancreas. Alcohol interferes with the normal function of the brain, disrupting its communication pathways. Long-term addictions may result in a number of disorders, ranging from memory loss to nerve damage (alcoholic neuropathy). Over a long time, alcohol can cause stretching of the heart muscles, arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure. Too much alcohol can cause the pancreas to cease filtering toxins and start releasing them, eventually leading to pancreatitis. However, some of the most common and life-threatening alcohol-related complications take place in the liver.
Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Liver
Excessive drinking and binge drinking can cause a number of complications in the liver—one of the body’s most complex organs with over 500 functions. Problems in the liver can hurt the entire body. The liver filters toxins out of the blood, stores energy, synthesizes hormones and proteins, and regulates cholesterol and blood sugar. Generally, the liver is an efficient organ capable of repairing itself in many scenarios, though this ability also masks serious health issues for years. When the liver is impaired over years of alcohol abuse, the increasing damage can be hard to notice and easy to mistake for other health problems. Once liver damage is diagnosed, it is often irreversible, making prevention of upmost importance.
In 2014, the number of deaths from alcoholic liver disease (an accumulation of liver-damaging symptoms) was 19,338 people in the US. The following year, almost 20% of liver transplants went to those diagnosed with alcoholic liver disease—making alcoholic liver disease the third-most common reason for a liver transplant behind Hepatitis C and cancer.
Alcoholic liver disease progresses through four main stages:
Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease
Alcoholic fatty liver disease is a buildup of fat in the liver cells due to an overconsumption of alcohol that the liver cannot process. About 90 to 100% of heavy drinkers have fatty livers, according to the American Liver Foundation. People with fatty livers have up to a 10% chance of abusing alcohol to the point that they develop a prolonged illness that results in death.
Alcoholic hepatitis (AH) is inflammation of the liver. Of long-time heavy drinkers, 35% will develop AH. Most patients are diagnosed with AH after 20 years of consuming 6 to 7 drinks per day (though some are diagnosed with it after only 10 years). All heavy drinkers don’t develop AH but some who drink moderately will develop it. However, due to the progression of liver damage, up to 40% of AH patients die within a month of diagnosis.
Symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Low-grade fevers
- Weakness and fatigue
- Abdominal swelling or tenderness
- Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes
Fibrosis is an accumulation of proteins (like collagen) that leads to the hardening of tissues or organs. Fibrosis develops alongside alcoholic hepatitis. Mild to moderate forms may be reversible. However, prolonged fibrosis and hepatitis from the continuation of alcohol abuse can lead to liver cancer.
Cirrhosis develops after the liver has been inflamed for a long period of time. Cirrhosis is characterized by scarring of the liver and seriously impaired functioning. For some, it is fatal. Cirrhosis is also irreversible, but further damage can be prevented by discontinuing alcohol consumption forever.
Treatment options for the various symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include medication, lifestyle changes, and surgery. First and foremost, maintaining sobriety is the only way to stop the progression of liver decay. For pronounced or near-fatal liver disease, a transplant may be necessary. Yet, many with alcohol-related liver problems don’t make good transplant candidates because of the high risk for continued alcohol abuse.
There are many legal effects of alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse is linked to 40% of crime and violent acts in the US. Furthermore, 37% of those in jail report that they were under the influence of alcohol at the time of their arrest. About 80% of charges resulting in incarceration (such as domestic violence, DWI, robbery, property damage, drug offenses, and public-order offenses) stem from alcohol or drug abuse. This has created a prison population of 80% substance abusers; 50% of inmates are clinically addicted.
Alcohol, in particular, is more closely linked to violent crime than any other illicit substance, including child and spousal abuse, rape, assault, and murder. Approximately half of all homicide and assault is perpetrated when at least one party has been drinking. That rate is higher when the parties know each other. Alcohol-related crime is especially prevalent at universities, where more than 600,000 students between 18 and 24 are assaulted by a student under the influence of alcohol each year.
Alcohol-related Crimes Statistics
Each year, there are nearly 3 million violent crimes where the offender has been drinking.
Of all violent crime at universities, 95% involves the presence of alcohol.
744,000 violent incidents between acquaintances that result in police presence involve alcohol.
Drunk driving is one of the most dangerous effects of alcohol abuse for the individual and those around them. The third-most commonly reported crime in the US, and the cause of over a million arrests every year, is drunk driving. It is the number one cause of early death, injury, and disability among teens. Among all ages, drunk driving contributes to 40% of all traffic fatalities. Vehicular crashes with a driver under the influence kill 36 people and injure another 700 every day. 2 out of 3 people will be part of a drunk driving crash in their life.
As a depressant, alcohol slows the central nervous system and the body’s response time. A person’s ability to process information is delayed while impaired. For most people, 2 to 3 drinks are all it takes to become legally impaired, as determined by his or her blood alcohol content (BAC). The legal limit for BAC in all 50 states is 0.08%. There are tighter BAC restrictions on some professions as well as higher penalties for convictions with higher BACs in some areas.
Being handed a criminal DUI/DWI conviction can affect parts of your life you may not expect. A first offense can net up to 180 days in jail and/or a $1,000 fine and 6 months license revocation in some states. Drunk driving is grounds for dismissal with most companies, and it can prevent you from obtaining a job. A DUI on your record can also result in higher insurance rates, financial difficulty, and personal and social shame.
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Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Careers
Alcohol abuse can cause a number of issues in the workplace, many times culminating in embarrassment or even loss of a job. Employees with an alcohol addiction are an expensive problem for companies due to:
- Decreased productivity
- Low morale
- Increased healthcare costs
- Legal liabilities
- Worker’s compensation costs
- Higher turnover
- Disciplinary actions
Employees suffering from a substance use disorder, specifically alcohol, are nearly 3 times more likely to be absent from work for injury. Research of workplace deaths revealed that approximately 1 in 10 of the victims was under the influence. A quarter of workers report consuming alcohol while on the clock.
Alcohol abuse that affects the workplace generally occurs in drinking before or during working hours, and excessive drinking at night that causes hangovers and impairs work the following day. Research has demonstrated that problems also arise not just from those suffering from an alcohol addiction, but also from nondependent drinkers who sporadically drink too much.
Family and Relationship Damage Caused by Alcohol
The effects of alcohol abuse aren’t only damaging to the individual with an addiction, but also to his or her personal relationships. This is why alcoholism is also known as the “family disease.” Drinking contributes to two-thirds of domestic violence between spouses and a large number of child abuse cases. Alcohol is 5 to 13 times more likely to be involved in domestic violence than illicit drugs, and about half of those convicted reported they’d been drinking for 6 or more hours before the time of the offense.
Alcohol-fueled violence isn’t the only damage family members can suffer; the psychological effects can be incredibly traumatic. Children who witness abuse of a parent where alcohol is involved are 50% more likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol. Children of alcoholics are also more likely to grow up to develop the same habits. Today, one of five adults grew up with an alcoholic in their home.
An alcoholic parent may hinder the growth of their children by disrupting mealtimes or bedtimes and creating tense, anxiety-ridden environments. These stressors can manifest themselves in a child by:
- Failing classes or overachieving
- Filling the role of a parent
- Engaging in risky behavior
- Being unable to make friends
- Violent behavior
- Manifesting physical illnesses
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Developing depression or suicidal thoughts
Alcohol abuse can also have negative effects on an individual’s significant other or spouse—even when it doesn’t result in domestic violence. Partners may experience self-deprecation, depression, hatred toward their partner, avoiding social functions, mental exhaustion, or manifesting physical illnesses. Alcoholism can also cause financial difficulties and is one of the major causes of divorce today.
A variety of treatment programs exist to help individuals recover from an alcohol addiction. Depending on the severity of the addiction, inpatient or outpatient treatment centers may provide the best environment for recovery. Tensions built up throughout an individual’s addiction can be addressed through methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and medications to control urges. Alcoholics Anonymous offers therapy for addiction recovery, but family counseling is just as important.
If you’re ready to stop feeling the effects of alcohol abuse, contact a treatment provider now to help you find the right rehab for you.
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