What Are the Effects of Alcohol? -Short-Term & Long-Term Effects

For years now, alcohol has remained the most commonly abused substance in the United States, bar none. This is mostly due to the fact that it is widely available and easily obtainable, and that drinking is socially acceptable. Today, more than 28 million people in the US aged 12 or older struggle with some form of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). This makes detecting the signs of alcohol addiction hard. Combined with the social stigma surrounding the disease, this makes it difficult for a person to receive or, even, ask for help.1,2

This, in turn, led to a rapid rise in alcohol-related deaths, especially over the past couple of years (In 2021 alone, alcohol-related deaths rose nearly 34% to over 52,000, not including the nearly 56,000 deaths caused by chronic liver disease or cirrhosis.) Everything said makes it not only important but essential to understand the long- and short-term side effects of alcohol and the dangers that come with it.1,2

How Does Alcohol Affect the Body?

Over the past two decades, there have been many studies trying to discern if alcohol’s effects on the body could be positive. Some have shown evidence that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption may have some beneficial effects. However, the general consensus remains the same: the negative effects of alcohol on the body render the positive ones all but negligible.3,4,5

What happens to the body when alcohol is consumed?

The human body has minimal capacity to process alcohol. Once ingested, alcohol rapidly spreads through the bloodstream and into the body, negatively affecting every major system:6,7,8

  • Brain: Alcohol is a Central Nervous System (CNS) depressant. It reduces brain functions and neural activity, adversely affecting mood, memory, cognition, and behavior, as well as some vital bodily functions.
  • Heart and Bloodstream: Alcohol widens blood vessels, causing a rapid drop in body temperature and putting additional pressure on the heart. This leads to increased heart rate, irregular heartbeat, and high blood pressure and generally weakens the heart in the long term;
  • Liver: The liver processes around 95% of consumed alcohol. Continuous, excessive drinking (such is the case with AUD) puts severe strain on it, leading to issues such as fatty liver, alcoholic hepatitis, and cirrhosis;
  • Pancreas: Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxins that can cause inflammation of its blood vessels (pancreatitis);
  • Kidneys: Kidneys filter the waste from the blood and regulate fluids and electrolytes in the body. Heavy drinking causes a drop in said functions, which can lead to dehydration and chronic kidney diseases;
  • Stomach: Alcohol increases the amount of acid the stomach produces, simultaneously lowering its ability to destroy harmful bacteria that enter it. This can lead to gastritis, ulcers, and, in the long term, malnutrition.

Aside from mentioned negative effects of alcohol, there is evidence that it also increases the risk of certain kinds of cancer.9

What Are The Short-term Effects Of Alcohol Addiction?

The short-term effects of alcohol range from mild to severe. They can occur whether the person abuses alcohol regularly or only occasionally, and include:8,9

  • Impaired speech (slurring);
  • Headaches;
  • Vomiting;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Blurred vision;
  • Distorted hearing;
  • Impaired coordination;
  • Breathing difficulties;
  • Impaired judgment;
  • Blackouts;
  • Unconsciousness;
  • Coma.

Short-term effects of alcohol are quick to show, typically within 15-45 minutes of consumption. Manifestation speed and intensity of symptoms vary on a per-person basis, depending on several factors:8,9

  • Quantity of alcohol consumed;
  • The speed of consumption;
  • Whether or not the person ate before drinking.

Aside from these, the person’s genetics, gender, physical fitness and even family history of alcohol abuse can play a significant role in determining how fast a person can succumb to the short-term effects of alcohol.8,9

What Are The Long-term Effects Of Alcohol Addiction?

It is a well-known fact that overindulging in alcohol on a regular basis (which is the definition of alcohol abuse) can have severe consequences on a person’s health. Long-term effects of alcohol addiction include:8,9,10

  • Heart disease
  • Liver disease
  • Brain damage
  • Pancreas disease
  • Nerve damage
  • Various forms of cancer
  • Kidney damage
  • Stomach issues
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Malnutrition

Mentioned issues are a direct consequence of alcohol abuse. However, it is important to mention indirect ones, resulting from the lapse of judgment while under the influence of alcohol. These include:8,9

  • Injuries or death resulting from car crashes, falls, or other accidents;
  • Injuries or death, as well as bodily or psychological harm to others resulting from aggravated assault, sexual assault, or domestic violence.

In summary, the consequences of alcohol abuse aren’t limited to the person abusing it only. In fact, in 2020 alone, the number of alcohol-related deaths stood at around 100,000+. Out of those, around 10.5 thousand were drunk driving accidents, while more than 7 thousand were alcohol-related homicides.11

Therefore, we can conclude that AUD isn’t an individual problem but, rather, society’s as a whole. Which is why it is imperative to spread awareness of this disease, as well as help those in its grasp receive the necessary help.11

What Are The Psychological Effects Of Alcohol?

The psychological effects of alcohol can be as severe as the physical ones, if not more. They can leave a lasting mark on the person’s psyche, resulting in an inability to function normally. As is the case with the physical, the psychological effects of alcohol can be short or long-term.10

Short-term psychological effects of alcohol:10,12

  • Sudden and unpredictable mood swings
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Apathy
  • Impaired judgment
  • Inability to focus
  • Difficulty memorizing or remembering things
  • General confusion
  • A variety of temporary alcohol-induced psychiatric disorders (depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, psychotic disorder, etc.)

Long-term psychological effects of alcohol:10

  • Hindered brain development (in teens and young adults)
  • Tolerance development, which leads to dependency and, ultimately, addiction
  • Development of mental illnesses (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, etc.)

From everything said, it is not difficult to see how detrimental the psychological effects of alcohol can be to a person and those around them. A sudden aggressive episode can result in injuries, family problems, and broken relationships. The inability to focus can cause a loss of productivity on the job and financial struggle. Difficulties in memorizing or remembering can severely hinder academic performance.10

The severity of these symptoms largely depends on the stage of alcoholism the person is at. Fortunately, the majority is either temporary or can be managed to an extent with the right treatment options and therapy.10

How Does Alcohol Affect Pregnancy Women?

Despite conclusive proof that alcohol negatively impacts fetal development, the trend of drinking during pregnancy continues. A recent CDC study found that 1 out of 7 expecting mothers drank in the past month, and 1 out of 20 reported binge drinking during the same period. These results are alarming because drinking during pregnancy can cause an array of complications, including:13,14

  • Premature birth
  • Stillbirth
  • Miscarriage
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

All of the above can leave lasting negative psychological and physiological consequences on mother and baby alike. Meaning: the effects of alcohol during pregnancy are never beneficial.13,14

What is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) is a collective name for an array of birth defects and developmental disabilities caused by the effects of alcohol during pregnancy. They are characterized by:13,14

  • Abnormal facial features
  • Small head size
  • Below-average height
  • Low body weight
  • Difficulties focusing, concentrating, and memorizing
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor coordination
  • Learning disabilities (poor academic performance)
  • Delayed speech development
  • Intellectual disability (low IQ)
  • Impaired vision and/or hearing
  • Problems with bones, heart, and kidneys

Said effects of alcohol during pregnancy are unaffected by the type of alcohol consumed, but increase with the quantity. However, FASDs are preventable – but only with complete abstinence from alcohol.13,14

What Are The Effects of Alcohol Addiction on the Family?

Addiction is not an individual disease. Rather, it is a disease of their entire social circle. Needless to say, the people impacted the most are those closest to the person with AUD. Both short-term and long-term effects of alcohol have a negative impact on one’s family. Whether through ignoring duties or financial troubles resulting from alcohol abuse, the end result is virtually the same: a disrupted and dysfunctional family.15

How Are Children Affected by Alcohol Addiction?

Children tend to be heavily affected by their parents and/or caretakers’ alcohol abuse issues. Parents with AUD will often neglect them in favor of nurturing the addiction. This results in a host of issues, most of them psychological.15

A child whose parents abuse alcohol can feel isolated and confused. More often than not, they can even feel guilty – as if their parents’ lack of care and attention is their fault. This can permanently scar a developing brain, and lead to bigger issues down the line, such as trauma, self-blame, frustration, and anger.15

Lastly, evidence shows how children that grow up in an environment that boasts unhealthy relationships with alcohol are four times more likely to start misusing it themselves. Fortunately, therapy and other forms of treatment can help them recover and prevent the development of AUD.15,16

The Effects of Alcohol on a Relationship

Negative effects of alcohol can reach every corner of a person’s life. Romantic and marital aspects are no exceptions. Due to the way addiction works, alcoholism can disrupt even the most stable relationships. The person misusing alcohol can become distant, unfaithful, start ignoring their obligations, or get into financial and legal trouble. Their partner will often feel the brunt of it, leading to excessive stress and feelings of disappointment, betrayal, abandonment, and guilt.15

The best option to stabilize and mend a threatened relationship is to actively seek help for your or loved one’s alcohol problem. Proven treatment options exist and are widely available, both for the person under the influence and their family.15

What Are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse on Teens?

Teenagers (and adolescents in general) are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to alcohol abuse. At this age, the brain is still developing and is susceptible to outside stimuli. The inhibition mechanism isn’t fully formed yet, making it more likely to succumb to peer pressure and environmental influences. Considering how this is a confusing period, defined by a search for oneself and constant experimenting in virtually all aspects of life, it is easy to see how an adolescent brain can find a coping strategy in alcohol.16

While it may seem like a whim or a phase at first, teenage drinking is a serious problem that can have dire consequences for their family as a whole. Parents can feel helpless and disappointed, forcing them to employ extreme measures to control the problematic child. Which is not only counterproductive but can drive a confused teenager to seek even more extreme ways to cope with the confusing world.16

On the flip side, one sibling’s trouble with alcohol can negatively influence the others. Parents can, seemingly overnight, switch their full attention to a troubled teenager, making others feel neglected. This can cause much distress to a family as a whole, since the negative effects of alcohol can be felt by everyone in the troubled person’s vicinity, as mentioned above.16

Effects of Alcohol on Teenagers’ Education and Career

As research shows, teenage alcohol use has a direct negative impact on their education and career. Alcohol lowers the function of the brain, which leads to a diminished capacity to learn, focus, and recall facts from memory. In short term, this can significantly hinder a person from reaching academic goals.17,18

Similarly, the long-term effects of alcohol abuse are also detrimental. Evidence shows that alcohol abuse in teenage years can cause:18

  • Lower postsecondary education enrollment
  • A decrease in overall income
  • Difficulty attaining or keeping a job

What Should I Do to Overcome the Effects of Alcohol Abuse?

With all the negative effects of alcohol, it may seem like AUD and alcohol addiction are unsolvable problems. Modern alcohol dependency treatment options make it possible to keep this disorder in check. The most often used AUD treatments today include:19, 20

  • Behavioral treatments, and;
  • Medically-assisted treatments (MAT).

What is Behavioral Therapy and What Does It Entail?

Behavioral Treatments are a collection of tried-and-true psychotherapy methods. They involve counseling with a mental health professional, either in the form of one-on-one, group, or family sessions. In general, Behavioral Therapy helps a person:19

  • Identify the underlying cause of their AUD and learn how to reduce or completely stop drinking;
  • Develop healthy coping skills;
  • Set realistic and reachable recovery goals (short and long-term);
  • Acquire skills necessary to reintegrate into society;
  • Learn to recognize and avoid triggers that could lead to relapse.

What is Medically Assisted Treatment?

Today, there’s a wide array of FDA-approved medications that can help with alcohol dependency, as well as mitigate the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. Treatment that involves using said medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapy is known as Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT).20

Evidence suggests that MAT can treat Alcohol Use Disorder with great success and even help sustain recovery. Which is why it is one of the most commonly used methods in rehab clinics worldwide.20

Frequently Asked Questions