Alcohol Abuse: Symptoms, Signs and Side Effects

Last Updated: May 30, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

At times, it can be difficult to recognize alcohol addiction symptoms, particularly in a culture where drinking is so prevalent. Signs of alcohol addiction can include certain changes in behavior, mood or physical health. It is important to address any problems with drinking, as the mental and physical effects of alcohol abuse can, in some cases, be ongoing or permanent.

Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

The signs of alcohol abuse can begin gradually or seem minimal. They may progress in severity over time and become more apparent. The following symptoms of alcoholism can be red flags that you or a loved one may need treatment for drinking:

  • Drinking more than planned
  • Unsuccessful attempts to cut back or stop drinking
  • Spending a lot of time drinking or dealing with the symptoms of drinking, such as hangovers
  • Craving alcohol
  • Having problems at home, work or school because of drinking or being hungover
  • Drinking despite it causing problems with friends or family
  • Avoiding activities you previously liked in order to drink
  • Finding yourself in a dangerous situation after drinking
  • Drinking despite health problems
  • Finding that it takes more drinks to feel the effects than it used to
  • Feeling unpleasant withdrawal effects when alcohol use stops

Alcohol Use Side Effects

Side effects of excessive alcohol use include both short- and long-term health problems. Drinking affects both the mind and body. Over the long term, some of the physical and mental changes from drinking may become irreversible.

Physical Effects

In the short term, the physical effects of alcohol and physical signs of alcoholism, especially binge drinking, include:

  • Liver damage, including fibrosis and cirrhosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Stroke
  • Changed brain function
  • Weakened immune systems
  • In pregnant women, miscarriage, stillbirth or fetal alcohol syndrome

Psychological Effects

Mental health and alcohol can intersect with one another in negative ways. Mood problems often coexist with the psychological effects of alcohol. In some cases, the mental effects of alcohol can cause psychological problems as well. In other cases, existing mental health problems like depression can make someone more likely to drink as a way to self-medicate. Some of the mood changes linked to alcohol are:

  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression
  • Antisocial thoughts
  • Excessive happiness or mania
  • Mood swings
  • Psychosis

Sexual and Reproductive Health

Drinking can negatively impact sexual health in a few different ways:

  • In women, chronic drinking is linked to irregular ovulation and menstrual cycles
  • In men, alcohol reduces testosterone production
  • Alcohol may interact with some erectile dysfunction drugs like Cialis, or tadalafil. If you or your partner are taking an erectile dysfunction drug, you should ask your doctor if it is safe to drink
  • Sexual assault risk is increased with extreme alcohol use. Around half of sexual assaults are committed by people who have been drinking, and about half of victims report drinking before the assault
  • Risky sexual behavior and sexually transmitted diseases are linked to binge drinking

In addition, alcohol and fertility problems are common in both men and women. If you’re actively trying to become pregnant, doctors recommend avoiding alcohol.

Alcohol and Cancer Risk

Significant links exist between alcohol and cancer. Alcohol is a risk factor for the development of several different kinds of cancer, including:

  • Breast: In women, alcohol use is strongly linked to breast cancer. Every 10 grams of alcohol a day raises breast cancer risk by 12%.
  • Liver: Alcohol is one of the main contributors to liver cancer. People who drink 5.5 drinks a day have a cancer rate that is five times higher than those who do not drink.
  • Mouth: Oral cancer is linked to alcohol use, especially if you also smoke. Having 3.5 drinks a day is linked to a rate of cancer that is up to three times higher than in people who do not drink.
  • Esophagus: Alcohol can contribute to esophageal cancer. People of East Asian descent with mild alcohol intolerance who drink are up to 10 times more likely to develop this type of cancer if they drink alcohol.
  • Intestines: The risk of colorectal cancer increases with alcohol use. Every 10 grams of alcohol daily increases colorectal cancer risk by 7%.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Long-term alcohol use can lead to negative health consequences. If you drink heavily, there are many long-term effects of alcohol on the body. Problems can include:

  • Heart problems like an enlarged heart or irregular heartbeat
  • Liver problems like alcoholic hepatitis or cirrhosis
  • Pancreas problems like pancreatitis
  • A weakened immune system

Further, long term effects of alcohol on the brain include a higher risk of problems like:

  • Direct brain damage from drinking
  • Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a neurological disorder linked to drinking
  • Seizures
  • Head injury from falls or accidents while under the influence of alcohol
  • Brain problems caused by liver disease from drinking
  • Dementia

Drug Interactions

Alcohol and drug interactions can be deadly. Drugs that have a reaction with alcohol include:

  • Benzodiazepines: Combining benzos, such as Xanax and Klonopin, with alcohol dramatically raises the risk of an overdose.
  • Narcotics: Mixing Opioids and alcohol increases the risk of shallow breathing and overdose.
  • Over-the-counter pain drugs: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory inhibitors, or NSAIDS, like ibuprofen and naproxen can increase bleeding if you drink. Aspirin can have a similar effect. Acetaminophen can also cause liver damage when taken while drinking.
  • Herbs and supplements: Many supplements, like Kava Kava, can cause liver damage. When drinking, the risk of liver damage increases.
  • Anticoagulants: Some drugs like warfarin can thin your blood too much if you drink.
  • Diabetes drugs: Drinking while taking some diabetes drugs can lower blood sugar. Adding to the problem, if you drink too much, you may not realize that your blood sugar is low.

Drinking While Pregnant

Drinking while pregnant is not recommended. Doctors have found there is no safe amount of alcohol to consume during pregnancy. A baby whose mother drinks while pregnant can develop a lifelong condition called fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS. Many of the signs of FAS are caused by the baby’s brain being exposed to alcohol. Some symptoms of FAS are:

  • Abnormal facial features
  • Small head
  • Short stature
  • Low weight
  • Coordination problems
  • Hyperactivity
  • Attention problems
  • Memory problems
  • Learning disabilities
  • Delayed speech and language
  • Low intelligence
  • Problems with reasoning and judgment
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing problems
  • Organ problems, especially the heart, kidneys and liver

Signs of Alcohol Poisoning

While drinking too much can cause intoxication, in some cases it can cause alcohol poisoning, or alcohol overdose. Alcohol poisoning signs include:

  • Stomach pain
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Bleeding from the stomach or intestines
  • Slow breathing
  • Decreased alertness
  • Problems walking and with coordination
  • Vomiting

If you are able to wake the person with symptoms of alcohol poisoning, you can move then somewhere safe to rest. You should make sure they are lying on their side in case they vomit. In addition, you should keep checking on them regularly to make sure their symptoms do not worsen. You should also seek medical help. A potential alcohol poisoning situation is always a medical emergency. If you are unable to wake the person up, you also need to seek emergency medical assistance.

Alcohol poisoning can be deadly and therefore should be treated as soon as possible. When in doubt, you should call 911 or the National Poison Center at 1-800-222-1222.

If you or a loved one struggle with alcohol use, our experts at The Recovery Village Ridgefield can help. Contact us today to learn more about treatment for alcohol abuse and addiction.


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