People who misuse alcohol have a risk of short- and long-term health effects, ranging from mild to serious or even deadly. Chronic drinking can lead to an alcohol use disorder (AUD), otherwise known as alcohol addiction. If you are wondering about the effects of alcohol, it’s important to know the possible dangers so you can make informed decisions about your health and wellbeing.
Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Body
Short-term effects of alcohol consumption can be influenced by different factors such as age, weight, gender, the amount and type of alcohol you drink, alcohol tolerance, whether you use medicines, and other considerations.1
While short-term side effects of alcohol in low doses can include pleasurable feelings like relaxation and reduced tension, drinking alcohol in higher doses can lead to serious side effects. The short-term effects of alcohol on the body can include:2,3
Poor concentration, slow reflexes, and reduced reaction time. You may not be able to concentrate on what you are doing or be able to respond quickly, which can lead to injury or accidents.
Poor decision-making. You may make decisions that can cause harm to you or someone else, or that you later regret. You may not be able to identify dangerous situations that can put you or someone else in harm’s way.
Slurred speech. You may not be able to speak clearly or communicate your feelings or boundaries to others.
Poor emotional control. You may overreact to people or situations, become more emotional, or act in ways that you might not otherwise act when you are sober.
Poor vision. You may not be able to see clearly, or you may have double vision, which can increase your risk of harm and injury.
Passing out or blackouts. With blackouts, you are still conscious but may not be able to recall the places or situations you were in or people you were with when you become sober later on.
Heavy drinking can also lead to alcohol overdose. This can cause symptoms such as:4
Trouble staying awake.
Low body temperature. You may feel cold or be unable to warm up. Your skin may look blue, and you may be at risk for hypothermia, which means dangerously low body temperature.
Trouble breathing. You may have slowed breathing (fewer than 8 breaths per minute) or irregular breathing (10 seconds or more between breaths). Both can be life-threatening.
People who drink regularly or in high quantities over long periods of time may develop long-term physical and mental health issues. Alcohol can have long-term effects on almost all parts of the body, including the brain, heart, liver, stomach, and immune system.2,5
Brain Health Risks
Alcohol makes it harder for the brain to work the way it should, which can lead to problems with judgment, coordination, balance, memory, and speech.6 This increases the chance of injuries as well as dementia (memory loss that gets worse over time).5,6 The way alcohol changes your brain can also negatively affect your mood and behavior and make it harder to move normally and think clearly.5,7
Heart Health Risks
Chronic alcohol misuse or drinking too much at one time can cause many heart problems. Some of the effects of alcohol on the heart include: 7,8
Increased blood pressure.
Greater risk of coronary heart disease (when the blood vessels that bring blood to the heart narrow).
Peripheral artery disease (narrow arteries reduce blood flow to legs and sometimes arms).
Cardiomyopathy (stretched, sagging heart muscle which makes it harder to pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body).
People who develop hepatitis or cirrhosis may also have a risk of hepatic encephalopathy, where the liver can no longer effectively remove toxins from the blood. As a result, these toxins then may build up in the brain. This can cause symptoms such as confusion, muscle stiffness, tremors, and even coma.10
Digestive System Health Risks
Your digestive system includes the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestines, stomach, and anus. Alcohol misuse harms how the GI tract functions. This can lead to problems such as: 11
Loss of appetite.
Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach).
Bleeding from lesions in the stomach or small intestine.
Mallory-Weiss syndrome, which causes massive bleeding from tears between the esophagus and stomach. In some patients, this condition can get worse from repeated vomiting and heaving that often happens with heavy drinking.
Pancreas Health Risks
Too much alcohol can cause your pancreas to activate digestive enzymes in the pancreas instead of releasing them into the stomach. This process is toxic to the pancreas and can lead to pancreatitis.7 Pancreatitis is dangerous swelling of the blood vessels in your pancreas, making it hard for you to digest food.7 This can include acute (short-term) or chronic pancreatitis. Acute pancreatitis often causes pain that lasts for several days, nausea, and vomiting.12 Chronic pancreatitis happens when scar tissue forms in the pancreas, causing ongoing abdominal pain, lasting digestive problems, and even diabetes.12
Alcohol misuse can cause problems for your lungs. Issues may include:13
Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a life-threatening condition that makes it hard to breathe and therefore decreases oxygen to the rest of your body.
Bacterial pneumonia, which causes fluid-filled lungs, making it hard to breathe.
Tuberculosis, an often serious infectious lung disease.
Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection, a virus similar to a cold that can lead to other lung infections.
Immune System Health Risks
Chronic alcohol use harms your immune system, increasing your chance of certain infections and diseases. Even drinking too much at one time can weaken your immune system for up to 24 hours after getting drunk, increasing your risk of getting sick.7
Reproductive System Health Risks
Alcohol misuse can lead to many reproductive health problems. For example, studies have shown that even moderate drinking can lead to lowered sperm count in men.14 Women may face issues such as hormone changes, irregular menstrual cycles, ovulation problems, and fertility risks.15 Drinking while pregnant can cause stillbirth or miscarriage. It can also cause lifelong physical and behavioral problems in unborn babies, including growth problems, memory issues, learning disabilities, vision or hearing problems, and heart and kidney issues.16
Research shows that drinking is a major risk factor for many types of cancer.7 And the more alcohol you drink over time, the greater your risk for the following cancers:7
Head and neck cancer
Finding Treatment for Alcohol Misuse
If you or someone you care about has a drinking problem, there is hope. Seeking professional treatment may help prevent or reduce the negative short- and long-term effects of alcohol. Many people begin AUD treatment with detox, which can help you or your loved one safely stop drinking while managing withdrawal symptoms.17
The FDA has approved three medicines to treat AUD—disulfiram, acamprosate, and naltrexone.18 Benzodiazepines such as diazepam are also often used to help ease alcohol withdrawal symptoms.18