Health risks of alcohol use
Alcoholism - risks; Alcohol abuse - risks; Alcohol dependence - risks; Risky drinking
Definition of Alcohol Use
Beer, wine, and liquor all contain alcohol. If you are drinking any of these, you are using alcohol. Your drinking patterns may vary, depending on who you are with and what you are doing.
Drinking an excessive amount of alcohol can put you at risk for alcohol-related problems if:
- You are a man who has 15 or more drinks a week, or often have 5 or more drinks at a time.
- You are a woman who has 8 or more drinks a week, or often have 4 or more drinks at a time.
One drink is defined as 12 ounces (355 milliliters, mL) of beer, 5 ounces (148 mL) of wine, or a 1 1/2-ounce (44 mL) shot of liquor.
Alcohol Use and Your Health
Long-term excessive alcohol use increases your chances of:
- Bleeding from the stomach or esophagus (the tube the food travels through from your mouth to your stomach).
- Swelling and damage to the pancreas. Your pancreas produces substances your body needs to work well.
- Damage to the liver. When severe, liver damage often leads to death.
- Poor nutrition.
- Cancer of the esophagus, liver, colon, head and neck, breasts, and other areas.
Excessive drinking can also:
- Make it harder to control high blood pressure with medicines if you already have high blood pressure.
- Lead to heart problems in some people.
Alcohol can affect your thinking and judgment each time you drink. Long-term excessive alcohol use damages brain cells. This can lead to lasting damage to your memory, thinking, and the way you behave.
Damage to nerves from alcohol use can cause many problems, including:
- Numbness or a painful "pins and needles" feeling in your arms or legs.
- Problems with erections in men.
- Leaking urine or having a hard time passing urine.
Drinking during pregnancy can harm the growing baby. Severe birth defects or fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) may occur.
Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to dangerous damage called alcoholic liver disease. Let's talk today about alcoholic liver disease. Alcoholic liver disease usually occurs after years of drinking too much. The longer you've abused alcohol, and the more alcohol you've consumed, the greater likelihood you will develop liver disease. Alcohol may cause swelling and inflammation in your liver, or something called hepatitis. Over time, this can lead to scarring and cirrhosis of the liver, which is the final phase of alcoholic liver disease. The damage caused by cirrhosis is unfortunately irreversible. To determine if you have alcoholic liver disease your doctor will probably test your blood, take a biopsy of the liver, and do a liver function test. You should also have other tests to rule out other diseases that could be causing your symptoms. Your symptoms may vary depending upon the severity of your disease. Usually, symptoms are worse after a recent period of heavy drinking. In fact, you may not even have symptoms until the disease is pretty advanced. Generally, symptoms of alcoholic liver disease include abdominal pain and tenderness, dry mouth and increased thirst, fatigue, jaundice (which is yellowing of the skin), loss of appetite, and nausea. Your skin may look abnormally dark or light. Your feet or hands may look red. You may notice small, red, spider-like blood vessels on your skin. You may have abnormal bleeding. Your stools might be dark, bloody, black, or tarry. You may have frequent nosebleeds or bleeding gums. You may vomit blood or material that looks like coffee grounds. Alcoholic liver disease also can affect your brain and nervous system. Symptoms include agitation, changing mood, confusion, and pain, numbness, or a tingling sensation in your arms or legs. The most important part of treatment is to stop drinking alcohol completely. If you don't have liver cirrhosis yet, your liver can actually heal itself, that is, if you stop drinking alcohol. You may need an alcohol rehabilitation program or counseling to break free from alcohol. Vitamins, especially B-complex vitamins and folic acid, can help reverse malnutrition. If cirrhosis develops, you will need to manage the problems it can cause. It may even lead to needing a liver transplant.
How Alcohol Use Can Affect Your Life
People often drink to make themselves feel better or to block feelings of sadness, depression, nervousness, or worry. But alcohol can:
- Make these problems worse over time.
- Cause sleep problems or make them worse.
- Increase the risk for suicide.
Families are often affected when someone in the home uses alcohol. Violence and conflict in the home is much more likely when a family member is abusing alcohol. Children who grow up in a home where alcohol abuse is present are more likely to:
- Do poorly in school.
- Be depressed and have problems with anxiety and low self-esteem.
- Have marriages that end in divorce.
Drinking too much alcohol even once can harm you or others. It can lead to any of the following:
- Car accidents
- Risky sex habits, which may lead to unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Falls, drowning, and other accidents
- Violence, sexual assault or rape, and homicide
What You Can Do
First, ask yourself what type of drinker you are?
Even if you are a responsible drinker, drinking too much just once can be harmful.
Be aware of your drinking patterns. Learn ways to cut back on drinking.
If you cannot control your drinking or if your drinking is becoming harmful to yourself or others, seek help from:
- Your health care provider
- Support and self-help groups for people who have drinking problems
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Fact sheets: alcohol use and your health.
Moyer VA; U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. Screening and behavioral counseling interventions in primary care to reduce alcohol misuse: U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommendation statement. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159(3):210-218. PMID: 23698791
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism website. Alcohol use disorder.
O'Connor PG. Alcohol use disorders. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 33.
Sherin K, Seikel S, Hale S. Alcohol use disorders. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 9th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 48.
Last reviewed on: 1/14/2018
Reviewed by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.