The Physical Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol use is widespread and socially acceptable throughout many areas of the world. However, while alcohol may be legal for adults to purchase and often consumed without incident, many people engage in problematic patterns of drinking and experience serious consequences from its use.

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, nearly 140 million Americans ages 12 and older reported any type of alcohol use in the month prior to surveying, and of those, more than 65 million reported binge drinking in the past month.1

Read on to learn more about how alcohol use effects the body.

Potential Risks of Acute Alcohol Intoxication

Different-Alcoholic-Drinks-49028294-650x575Many people underestimate how much alcohol they are consuming. A standard drink contains 1.2 tablespoons of pure alcohol. This amount of alcohol is found in 12 ounces of beer (many of them, at 5% ABV), 1.5 ounces of hard liquor (at 80 proof), or 5 ounces of wine (at ~12% ABV).2

As you drink, your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) begins to rise. A person is considered to be binge drinking when their pattern of alcohol consumption raises their BAC to 0.08 or greater. For most men, it takes 5 standard drinks over the course of about 2 hours to get your BAC to this level; for women, it typically takes 4 drinks in the same span of time.3

Alcohol Health Risks

If a woman consumes 8 or more drinks a week, and a man consumes 15 or more drinks a week, they are classified as a heavy drinker.2 Excessive alcohol use is associated with several potential adverse health outcomes and other risks, including:2

  • Alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal
  • Injuries resulting from motor vehicle crashes, falls, or other accidents
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in women who are pregnant
  • Risky sexual behaviors that could result in unplanned pregnancies or STD
  • Violent behavior, including suicide or violence against others

Stages of Alcohol Impairment

As you continue to drink over the course of minutes to hours, BAC and the corresponding level of impairment may progressively rise. Though the signs and symptoms of intoxication may vary from one person to the next, on average, at a BAC of up to 0.05, you may:4

  • Feel relaxed
  • Become sleepy
  • Have mild memory and speech impairment
  • Have some minor issues with balance or coordination

At a BAC of 0.06 to 0.15, you may:

  • Be more at risk of aggressive behavior
  • Have increasing issues with speech and memory
  • Become too impaired to drive
  • Have an increased risk of hurting yourself or others

At a BAC of 0.16 to 0.30, you are likely to:

  • Have significant impairment in speech, balance, and coordination
  • Be very dangerous behind the wheel of a car
  • Exhibit profoundly lowered judgment and decision-making capabilities
  • Experience gaps in memory or blackouts
  • Start vomiting
  • Pass out

At a BAC of .31 or higher, full loss of consciousness and life-threatening alcohol poisoning becomes an increasing concern.

Alcohol Poisoning Symptoms

An alcohol overdose or alcohol poisoning essentially means that so much alcohol is in your bloodstream that areas of the brain important for life supporting functions like breathing, heart rate, and the regulation of your body temperature begin to malfunction. Alcohol poisoning can kill you. The symptoms of alcohol poisoning can include:4

  • Mental confusion
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Inability to be awoken after losing consciousness
  • Slow heart rate
  • Slow or otherwise irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature
  • Paleness or bluish skin
  • Clammy, cold skin

Alcohol overdose can be fatal. Call 911 if you’re concerned that you or a loved one are experiencing alcohol poisoning symptoms.

Physical Effects of Long-Term Alcohol Abuse

In some people, excessive drinking over longer periods of time may lead to additional, potentially more persistent issues, such as nutritional deficiencies and an associated dementia. Other physical issues can include:5

  • Increased risk of cancer of the mouth, stomach, and throat.
  • Problems with the heart, including alcoholic cardiomyopathy.
  • Liver disease and dysfunction.
  • Hepatic encephalopathy which can lead to a range of mood and personality changes and neurological issues.

Women especially need to be careful of excessive alcohol use, as it can significantly increase their risk of breast cancer.6

Wet Brain, a.k.a. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

One of the more serious potential outcomes of long-term alcohol abuse is Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This disorder develops as a result of a lack of thiamine, or Vitamin B1, a nutritional deficiency common amongst people with drinking problems.5

Wernicke-Korsakoff disease actually consists of two distinct syndromes—the severe and short-lived Wernicke’s encephalopathy and a longer-lasting syndrome known as Korsakoff’s psychosis. 80-90% of people who develop the encephalopathy (characterized by severe mental confusion and problems with muscular coordination) will then go on to develop Korsakoff’s psychosis, which involves more profound issues with memory and cognition. This condition is sometimes called “wet brain.”5

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

Though compulsive drinking may be associated with several debilitating health issues, seeking treatment can help. Utilizing medical detox and withdrawal management, as well as focused behavioral therapies, professional substance abuse rehabilitation efforts have helped many with alcohol use disorders begin to recover.

If you or a loved one is ready to get help for alcohol abuse, we can help. Call our Admissions Navigators at to talk to a compassionate, knowledgeable person about your options for treatment.

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