Alcohol is a strong depressant drug that, if abused, can have serious side effects on a person’s mental and physical health. However, if taken in small amounts, alcohol can be a pleasant addition to life without doing any serious damage.
The effects of alcohol are immediate. Usually, pretty soon after drinking, a sense of wellbeing occurs, the person relaxes and inhibitions loosen. If drinking continues, there may be slurred speech and dizziness when trying to stand or walk.
How strong the immediate effects of alcohol are, depend on many factors, including your size, weight, age, sex, and the amount of food you’ve recently consumed. Alcohol affects people in various ways and at different rates. If you are small or slim, you’re likely to feel the effects of alcohol faster and stronger that someone who is larger, even if you drink the same amount. Women are generally more affected than men because they tend to have less water and more fat in their bodies. This means that, even when drinking the same amount, there is likely to be more alcohol in the bloodstream, producing a stronger effect. If you’re dehydrated or have an empty stomach, and if you drink fizzy or strong drinks, you will feel drunk more quickly as the alcohol is rapidly absorbed.
This article is written by Jackie Griffiths, a freelance journalist who writes health, medical, biological, and pharmaceutical articles for national and international journals, newsletters and web sites.
The short term effects
Drinking too much alcohol has several immediate effects. It can lead to people becoming over-confident, talkative, nauseous and self-centred. Judgement and coordination are negatively affected; you may have slurred speech, disturbed sleep, and vomiting. You may have more accidents than usual and painful indigestion, and are likely to experience a headache the next day (due to dehydration). Low to moderate doses of alcohol are also linked to increased aggression, including public disorder, domestic violence, and child abuse.
The long term effects
People who drink regularly are vulnerable to a wide variety of serious physical and mental health problems. The drinker may not become obviously drunk – many alcoholics are steady drinkers who maintain a high level of alcohol in their body all day, every day, without exhibiting the classic symptoms of drunkenness. Persistent alcohol consumption can lead to a breakdown in family relationships and problems at work and socially.
Long-term alcohol abuse can lead to alcoholism and permanent damage of internal organs, such as the brain, heart, and liver.
Being overweight is often associated with the effects of alcohol. Heavy and/or steady drinking increases your calorific intake making you pile on the pounds. It is especially true if you start drinking in your early teens, as studies have shown that binge drinking when young means you’re four times more likely to become overweight or obese as an adult.
Drinking alcohol is not good for the skin. Many people who drink heavily suffer from facial redness, a condition called rosacea, which gives a tendency to easily flush red and feel hot. Skin can dry out and become cracked due to dehydration, and if drinking continues some disfiguration can occur especially around the nose – a condition known as rhinophyma.
Heavy and/or steady drinking has been shown to cause various kinds of cancer, responsible for about 6% of all cancer deaths each year. These are mouth cancer, pharyngeal cancer (upper throat), oesophageal cancer (food pipe), laryngeal cancer (voice box), breast cancer, bowel cancer, and liver cancer. The more alcohol you drink, the higher the risk you have of developing cancer. Second only to smoking in risk for oral and digestive tract cancers, it is not the type of drink you have or the way you drink it, but the total amount of alcohol you have over time.
Drinking alcohol can lead to fertility problems for both men and women. In men, it can lead to decreased testicular size, decreased sperm quality and quantity, a lessening in libido and impotence. In women, alcohol misuse can result in hormonal problems leading to abnormalities in the menstrual cycle, an increased risk of miscarriage, and if the drinking is heavy when pregnant, foetal alcohol syndrome.
Blood clots / strokes
People who drink heavily regularly, are more likely to experience blood clots. These can cause cardiac arrhythmias (abnormal heart beating) and the possibility of clots forming in blood vessels in the brain (strokes). Drinking over 8 units of alcohol (for men) or over 6 units (for women) causes dehydration which thickens the blood making the possibility of clots more likely.
Although it was recently discovered (2007) that very moderate alcohol consumption may help decrease blood pressure, heavy drinking still causes raised blood pressure (and a consequent risk of heart attack). There is a fine line between benefit and risk.
Drinking too much alcohol results in disturbed sleep, not only through having to get up to use the bathroom, but also because alcohol alters brain rhythms causing fitful sleep in the second half of the night. People find it difficult to get back to sleep, and when they do, they may have disturbing dreams. Sleep doesn’t feel restful, which leads to fatigue during the day and a decreased ability to cope with normal stresses and strains.
Other health risks
- Research shows that children of alcoholic parents are at greater risk of becoming alcoholics themselves
- Impaired judgement – increased risk of accidents
- Osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
- Loss of consciousness
- Suffocation (if vomiting when unconscious)
- Stomach ulcers
- Anxiety and depression
- Self harm