What Are the Health Effects of Drinking Alcohol?

Alcohol is the intoxicating ingredient that is present in wine, beer, and spirits. It is a depressant, which means that when it reaches the brain, it slows down the body’s systems.

It can also be difficult for the body to process, putting extra pressure on the liver, the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, and other functions.

Alcohol is a legal recreational substance for adults and one of the most commonly used drugs in the United States. People consume alcohol to socialize, relax, and celebrate.

It is commonly misused among individuals of all ages, resulting in significant health, legal, and socio-economic damage.

In 2017, around half of all Americans aged over 18 years had consumed alcohol in the last month. Just over 9 percent of those aged 12 to 17 years had done so.

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 15.1 million people aged 18 years and over in the U.S. had alcohol use disorders (AUD), or 6.2 percent of this age group.

Fast facts about alcohol.

  • Pure alcohol is a colorless, odorless, and flammable liquid.
  • Fruits and grains are the foods most commonly used to make alcohol.
  • Alcohol is the number one abused drug by minors in the U.S.
  • The liver can only oxidize about one drink per hour.
  • From before birth to adolescence, alcohol is known to be harmful to developing brains.
  • No amount of alcohol consumption can be considered safe during pregnancy.
  • Combined with other medications, whether over-the-counter (OTC) or prescribed, alcohol’s effects can be deadly.

Short-term effects

Within minutes of consuming alcohol, it is absorbed into the bloodstream by blood vessels in the stomach lining and small intestine.

It then travels to the brain, where it quickly produces its effects.

The short-term effects of alcohol depend on:

  • How much is consumed?
  • How quickly
  • The body fat percentage of theindividual depends on the weight, sex, and body fat percentage of the individual.
  • Whether or not they have eaten,

Drinking with a meal slows the rate of absorption, resulting in fewer side effects and less intoxication.

Signs of intoxication

At first, the person may feel relaxed, uninhibited, or giddy. As they consume more alcohol, intoxication may result.

Other signs of intoxication include:

  • slurred speech
  • clumsiness and unsteady gait
  • drowsiness
  • vomiting
  • headache
  • distortion of senses and perception
  • loss of consciousness.
  • lapses in memory

How much alcohol?

One drinkTrusted Source is the equivalent of:

  • 12 ounces of beer that is around 5 percent alcohol, depending on the type
  • 5 ounces of wine that is around 12 percent alcohol
  • 1.5-ounces of spirits, or a “shot,” at about 40 percent alcohol
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor, at around 7 percent alcohol

In other words, these servings all contain the same amount of alcohol: 0.6 ounces.

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is the amount of alcohol in the bloodstream. It is expressed as the weight of ethanol in grams per 100 milliliters (ml) of blood.

The body absorbs alcohol relatively quickly, but it takes longer to get the alcohol out of the body. The liver needs about an hour to process one drink.

Consuming several drinks in a short time causes the alcohol to build up in the body. This puts the body’s systems under pressure. It can lead to illness and, in severe cases, death.

It also increases the risk of blackouts, especially on an empty stomach. During this time, a person may do things that they do not remember later.

Binge drinking is defined as drinking within 2 hours:

  • Five or more drinks for a man
  • Four or more drinks for a woman

This is because women and men metabolize alcohol differently.

Intoxication impairs judgment and can result in inappropriate and illegal behaviors such as sexual promiscuity, disorderly conduct, driving while intoxicated, and acts of violence.

In 2014, 31 percent of all driving fatalities in the U.S. were alcohol-related.

Alcohol toxicity

When the amount of alcohol in the blood exceeds a certain level, this can lead to alcohol toxicity or poisoning. This is a dangerous condition.

Since alcohol is a depressant, it can slow breathing, leading to a lack of oxygen to the brain.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • confusion
  • vomiting
  • seizures
  • Slow breathing
  • blue tint to the skin
  • Low body temperature
  • loss of consciousness.
  • coma

If the blood alcohol concentration is higher than 0.4, there is a 50 percent chance of death.

Alcohol intolerance

Some people will feel unwell immediately after drinking alcohol. They may have an intolerance, insensitivity, or allergy to alcohol or another ingredient in a drink.

Symptoms include:

Alcohol intolerance can be a sign of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Anyone who suddenly develops an intolerance may be advised to see a doctor in case there is an underlying condition.

Combining alcohol with other depressant-type medications—whether over-the-counter preparations, prescription, or recreational drugs—can have serious effects on the respiratory and central nervous systems.

It is especially dangerous to mix alcohol with GHB, Rohypnol, ketamine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills.

Hangover

After drinking too much in an evening, a person may continue to feel the effects of the alcohol on waking up, with what is commonly called a “hangover.”

This is because alcohol is toxic to the body, and the body is still working to get rid of the toxin.

Many of the symptoms are caused by dehydration, but some chemicals in alcoholic drinks can cause a reaction in the blood vessels and the brain that makes symptoms worse.

Symptoms include:

Around 20 percent of alcohol is absorbed thru the stomach. Most of the remaining 80 percent is absorbed thru the small intestine. Around 5 percent of the alcohol consumed leaves the body thru the lungs, kidneys, and skin. The liver removes the rest.

Since the liver can only process the equivalent of one drink at a time, the body may remain saturated with the alcohol that has not yet left the body.

It can take 2 to 3 hours for the body to metabolize alcohol from one to two drinks, and up to 24 hours to process the alcohol from eight to ten drinks.

Long-term effects

Alcohol contributes to over 200 diseases and injury-related health conditions, including dependence and addiction, liver cirrhosis, cancers, and unintentional injuries such as motor vehicle accidents, falls, burns, assaults, and drowning.

Around 88,000 people in the U.S die from alcohol-related causes every year. This makes it the third leading preventable cause of death.

Long-term alcohol misuse is associated with the following health problems:

Because alcohol affects every physiological system, it can result in health problems all over the body.

According to studies, women who consume more alcohol than is suggested on a regular basis are more likely than males to acquire the liver disease, cardiomyopathy, and nerve damage in fewer years.

The amount of young individuals who consume alcohol is a big source of concern. According to research, 20% of college students satisfy the criteria for AUD, and the disorder affects around 623,000 adolescents aged 12 to 17. 

From fetal development to the end of adolescence, alcohol can have a major impact on the growing brain. If a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, her kid may be born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). 

Addiction and withdrawal

If a person consumes large amounts of alcohol regularly, their tolerance can increase, and the body requires more alcohol to achieve the desired effect.

As the body adapts to the presence of the drug, dependency, and addiction can result. If consumption stops suddenly, the person may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol addiction is a disease characterized by a strong craving for alcohol, and continued use despite a negative impact on health, interpersonal relationships, and ability to work. If the person stops drinking, they will experience withdrawal symptoms.

Signs and symptoms of withdrawal generally occur between 4 and 72 hours after the last drink or after reducing intake. They peak at about 48 hours and may last up to 5 days.

They may include:

Many people will take a drink to stop the discomfort of withdrawal.

In more severe cases, the person may experience Delirium tremens, or “the DTs.”

This condition involves:

  • body tremors (shaking)
  • hallucinations or changes in mental status
  • confusion
  • extreme sleepiness
  • seizures that can result in death

A medical emergency is delirium tremens. Anyone with an alcohol dependency disorder who desires to stop drinking should seek professional medical care or a treatment center specializing in safe alcohol detoxification.

Treatment for alcohol use disorder

The treatment of alcohol dependency involves a variety of interventions, and it requires medical, social, and family support.

Strategies include:

  • Individual and group counselling.
  • medication, such as disulfiram (Antabuse), naltrexone, and acamprosate (Campral).
  • participation in support networks such as Alcoholics Anonymous
  • A detoxification program in a hospital or medical facility is another option for those who need a higher level of care.

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