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Health risks of alcohol use

Alternative names

Alcoholism - risks; Alcohol abuse - risks; Alcohol dependence - risks; Risky drinking - risks

Definition

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.

You probably already know that drinking too much can cause many health problems. But even responsible drinking patterns can lead to health issues and other problems in your everyday life.

Alcohol use and your health

Long-term use of alcohol 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.

Even responsible drinking can lead to high blood pressure in some people.

  • If you already have high blood pressure, drinking can make it harder to control with medicines.
  • Using alcohol for a long time can lead to high blood pressure, which can then cause the heart to weaken and become enlarged.

Alcohol can affect your thinking and judgment each time you drink. Long-term 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.

How alcohol use can affect your life

Oftentimes, people 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 of 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:

  • Car accidents
  • Risky sex habits, which may lead to unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and sexual assault or rape
  • Falls, drowning, and other accidents
  • Suicide
  • Violence 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:

References

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th ed. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol use disorder: a comparison between DSM-IV and DSM-5. November 2013. http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/dsmfactsheet/dsmfact.pdf. Accessed on May 11, 2014.

O'Connor PG. Alcohol abuse and dependence. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 32.

Sherin K, Seikel S. Alcohol use disorders. In: Rakel RE, Rakel DP, eds. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 49.


Review Date: 5/11/2014
Reviewed By: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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