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Alcohol Effects on Overall Health

Alcohol consumption has become a prevalent social activity, with many individuals unaware of the risks associated with excessive drinking. While some people shouldn't drink at all, moderate drinking can be acceptable. However, drinking even in moderation can lead to significant health issues, with alcohol having the potential to affect almost every organ in the body. This article delves into the impact of alcohol on the body, including the short-term and long-term effects, the organs it affects the most, and what constitutes unhealthy drinking.

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The health effects of alcohol can include alcohol poisoning, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, liver damage, and pancreatic problems. Alcohol can cause short-term issues, including alcohol poisoning. Long-term effects can include alcohol use disorder (AUD).

If you’re using alcohol regularly, you can stop drinking. Professional help can include safe detox, counseling, and relapse prevention strategies.

What Constitutes Unhealthy Drinking?

An “unhealthy” amount of drinking is going to vary from person to person. 

Some people shouldn’t drink at all. For example, someone who is pregnant shouldn’t drink, as it can negatively affect the health of the developing fetus. Someone in recovery from alcoholism likely shouldn’t drink, as it can lead to relapse.

With this said, there are also broad drinking recommendations that can apply to the average person, even if they’re not at a higher risk of alcohol-related health complications.

While there are slight differences in recommendations depending on the health organization referenced, the general recommendation is to either avoid alcohol completely or to only engage in moderate drinking. Moderate drinking is defined by the USDA’s 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans as two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women. 

Drinking even at a moderate level is associated with a higher risk of cancer. Drinking more than a moderate amount on a consistent basis is associated with a variety of health risks, some of which can be life-threatening.

Organs Affected by Alcohol

On some level, alcohol has the potential to affect almost every organ in the body. This table can help you understand the impact at a glance. Keep reading for more details.

OrganShort TermLong Term
BrainLoss of coordination, slurred speech, blurry visionDependence, leading to serious problems when people try to quit
HeartHigh blood pressure and a spike in blood cholesterol at high levelsWeak heart muscles and an abnormal heartbeat
LiverStress from processing alcoholLiver damage, such as jaundice
PancreasStress from processing alcoholPancreatitis

Brain & Nervous System

If someone is dependent on alcohol, they should not attempt to suddenly stop drinking on their own.

Alcohol is a depressant, causing various effects on the brain. It can reduce a person’s inhibitions, slow their reaction time, and often make them feel more relaxed. 

With heavier drinking, a person can begin to lose significant coordination, slur their speech, and experience a loss of focus in their vision. 

With very heavy use, a person may experience alcohol poisoning, where key life-support systems in their brain work improperly, and important organs become heavily taxed, which can be life-threatening. Consistent heavy drinking has the potential to cause serious brain damage, some of which may be permanent

Regular alcohol consumption can also cause a person to develop physical dependence, as their brain and nervous system adjust to their heavy drug use. The body and brain become so accustomed to the presence of alcohol that they are unable to function normally in its absence. This means they will experience withdrawal symptoms if they try to quit drinking. 

Alcohol withdrawal can be life-threatening in some instances, so it’s important to get medical assistance during alcohol withdrawal if you have been engaging in long-term or high levels of alcohol consumption.

Despite its legal nature, alcohol should be considered highly addictive when misused. It is a drug with significant abuse potential, especially because of its wide availability. 


Heavy alcohol use can cause a person to develop high blood pressure and see a spike in their blood cholesterol levels. This raises a person’s risk of both stroke and heart attack

Over time, this can weaken the heart and cause an abnormal heartbeat. People who have alcohol use disorder are at higher risk for heart failure and heart attacks.


In 2020, researchers published a study about alcohol use disorders and the liver in the journal Addiction. In that article, researchers stated that almost 90% of alcohol-related deaths were caused by liver disease. They also noted that the risk of alcoholic liver disease increases with consumption. In other words, the more you drink, the harder it can be on your liver.

Researchers with the American Liver Foundation say that most heavy drinkers will have some type of liver disease. Three main types of liver damage exist:

  • Alcoholic fatty liver disease: This involves increased fat accumulation in liver cells.
  • Alcoholic hepatitis: This involves inflammation and early liver scarring. Mild forms can be reversed with abstinence, but severe forms can cause liver failure.
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis: This involves extensive scarring that disrupts the normal structure of the liver.

The liver is a key part of processing alcohol, but it can only safely process so much at once. As the liver is taxed by heavy alcohol use, it can become damaged.


One long-term health risk associated with alcohol use is pancreatitis, where the pancreas becomes inflamed and may become permanently damaged. This has the potential to cause severe pain in the abdomen, feverish temperatures, and a general feeling of being sick.

Short-Term & Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol also affects women more strongly than men, with men tending to need to drink more than women to get the same effects. 

Alcohol misuse comes with a bevy of both short-term and long-term effects.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of alcohol, which increase in severity the more a person drinks, include the following:

  • Reduced inhibitions
  • Increased risk of interpersonal conflict
  • Increased risk of falls and accidents
  • Altered behaviors patterns, specifically with an increased risk of risky and violent behavior
  • The potential for alcohol poisoning
  • An unpleasant hangover after alcohol has worn off

Alcohol affects people differently, with two major factors being the amount of alcohol a person consumes and their size. Generally speaking, larger people need to drink a larger amount of alcohol than smaller people to experience the same level of effect.

Long-Term Effects

In the long term, alcohol use can cause a long list of complications, many of which have been discussed above. It’s said alcohol can contribute to more than 200 kinds of injuries and diseases. 

Some long-term harms associated with alcohol use include the following:

  • Addiction
  • Deterioration of important relationships
  • Financial difficulties
  • Increased risk of legal trouble
  • Greatly increased risk of accident, especially if used while operating vehicles or other machinery
  • Risk of unwanted pregnancy
  • The development of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression
  • Interference with medications, including those used to treat mental health problems
  • Increased risk of self-harm and suicide
  • Various physical health problems, including higher cholesterol levels and a variety of heightened disease risks 

Relevant Stats on Alcohol Misuse

In the United States and many other countries, alcohol use is commonplace. Some relevant statistics, most of which come from a 2019 survey, referenced by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism include the following:

  • An estimated 1.7 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 17 suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD), with girls tending to have a higher rate of AUD than boys.
  • An estimated 5.3 percent of people ages 12 and older suffer from AUD, with the rate of AUD almost double among men in this age group compared to women.
  • Less than 10 percent of people who have had AUD in the past year (as of the 2019 survey) received any treatment.
  • Alcohol contributes to 18.5 percent of emergency department visits, and 22.1 percent of prescription opioid-related overdose deaths.
  • As much as 5 percent or more of global deaths are attributable in some significant way to alcohol consumption.

How to Stop Drinking

Considering all the above, there are plenty of reasons a person should stop drinking or at least reduce their alcohol consumption to the recommended “moderate” baseline. However, that is often easier said than done.

Alcohol can cause physical and psychological dependence. Again, greater than 5% of adults suffer from AUD, commonly called alcoholism or alcohol addiction.

Health professionals specializing in addiction treatment can help you form a treatment plan based on the best modern treatments available that meet your needs.

Understand Alcohol Withdrawal

Alcohol withdrawal can be severe, and heavy drinkers shouldn’t consider quitting without help. Common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Jumpiness
  • Nightmares
  • Nausea
  • Pallor

Some people develop a severe form of alcohol withdrawal called delirium tremens, which can cause sudden confusion and seizures. These episodes can be life-threatening.

Alcohol Detox

The detox process is much safer at addiction treatment facilities due to the professional help available. There is a lower chance of relapsing back into alcohol use in these facilities, as there are more barriers to getting and consuming alcohol compared to if you were at home.

Benzodiazepines are often used during alcohol withdrawal to keep withdrawal symptoms under control. These medications can prevent and treat delirium tremens, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that can be fatal.

Addiction Treatment

In alcohol addiction treatment, most people will benefit from a combination of talk therapy, counseling, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT). The goal is to help you abstain from alcohol misuse and also to identify what may be drawing you to misuse alcohol in the first place.

In therapy, you will learn strategies to better avoid alcohol and channel negative feelings in healthier ways. You will also learn approaches to build a strong support network of people that can be a positive, helpful influence in your recovery process.

Taking the First Step

Addiction recovery isn’t easy, but it’s always possible with the right amount of consistent effort and a willingness to talk to professionals and listen to their advice. Even if you’ve tried and failed to quit drinking in the past, there is hope for a better tomorrow. With the right help, you can slowly progress toward a healthier lifestyle and regaining control over your life.

Updated May 1, 2024
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  2. 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (December 2020). U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
  3. Risks: Alcohol Misuse. (August 2018). UK NHS.
  4. Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome. (November 2014). U.S. Pharmacist.
  5. Alcohol’s Impact on the Cardiovascular System. (October 2021). Nutrients.
  6. Heavy Drinking May Cause Heart Damage Before Symptoms Appear. (December 2019). American Heart Association.
  7. Alcohol-Related Brain Damage (ARBD): What Is It and Who Gets It? Alzheimer’s Society.
  8. Severe Alcoholic Hepatitis: Current Perspectives. (August 2019). Hepatic Medicine: Evidence and Research.
  9. Acute Pancreatitis. (May 2022). NHS UK.
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  12. Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help. (August 2021). National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  13. Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome: Benzodiazepines and Beyond. (September 2015). Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research.
  14. Delirium Tremens: Assessment and Management. (May 2018). Journal of Clinical & Experimental Hepatology.
  15. Management of Alcohol Withdrawal Delirium An Evidence-Based Practice Guideline. (July 2004). JAMA International Medicine.
  16. The Risks Associated With Alcohol Use and Alcoholism. (2011). Alcohol Research & Health.
  17. Sorting Out the Health Effects of Alcohol. (November 2020). Harvard Medical School.
  18. Associations Between Medical Conditions and Alcohol Consumption Levels in an Adult Primary Care Population. (May 2020). JAMA Network Open.
  19. Alcohol Use and Your Health. (April 2022). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  20. Alcohol Use Disorder and the Liver. (July 2020). Wiley.
  21. Alcohol and Your Liver. (May 2020). American Liver Foundation.
  22. Alcohol Withdrawal. (February 2023). U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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