Short- and Long-Term Effects of Alcohol Misuse

Excessive drinking can take a serious and lasting toll on a person’s health and well-being. Keep reading to learn more about the short- and long-term effects of alcohol misuse and how to get help for alcohol addiction if you or a loved one has lost control of their drinking.

Short-Term Effects of Alcohol

The short-term effects of alcohol can be felt almost immediately and may include:1,2

  • Slurred speech.
  • Impaired coordination.
  • Unsteadiness.
  • Trouble thinking clearly and remembering.
  • Rapid, uncontrollable eye movements.
  • Stupor or coma.

Alcohol intoxication, especially at high levels, is also associated with amnesia or memory loss (i.e., “blackouts”).1,3

These short-term effects may increase the risk of:4

  • Drowning or other accidental injuries from falling and car crashes.
  • Alcohol poisoning.
  • Miscarriage, stillbirth, or alcohol-related fetal disorders in pregnant women.
  • Risky sexual behaviors like unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners.
  • Violence, such as physical or sexual assault, homicide, or suicide.

Long-Term Effects of Alcohol

Excessive drinking over time can have long-term effects on a person’s health and may lead to:4

  • High blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and liver disease.
  • Various forms of cancer.
  • A weakened immune system.
  • Learning and memory problems.
  • Co-occurring mental health disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety).
  • Family problems, job loss, and other social issues.
  • Alcohol dependence or addiction.

Effects of Alcohol on the Liver

Of all the organs in the human body, alcohol’s toxic effects cause the most damage to the liver, the main organ responsible for metabolizing alcohol.5,6

In 2021, about half of all liver disease deaths involved alcohol, and alcohol-associated liver disease is the leading cause of liver transplants in the U.S.7

So, what exactly does alcohol do to the liver? As the liver breaks alcohol down, the process increases the deposition of lipids, or fat. This is called steatosis (i.e., “fatty liver”), the earliest stage of liver damage. This condition is often reversible if the person stops drinking.6

The last, most severe stage is cirrhosis or permanent liver damage. This occurs when scar tissue replaces normal liver tissue. As the condition worsens, the organ begins to stop working. These lesions can also lead to cancerous growth that develops into liver cancer.6,8,9

Heavy drinking can also lead to alcohol-associated hepatitis, another inflammatory disease that occurs in the liver.2

Effects of Alcohol on the Heart

Studies show associations between excessive alcohol consumption and certain heart conditions, including:2,10

  • High blood pressure.
  • Stroke.
  • Irregular heartbeat.
  • Cardiomyopathy—damage to or abnormality in the left ventricle.
  • Coronary heart disease (CHD).
  • Peripheral arterial disease (PAD).

Researchers present a few possibilities of how excessive drinking can impact cardiovascular health. Alcohol causes cell damage that subsequently leads to plaque buildup in arteries. As a result, the arteries are narrower and the heart must pump harder, increasing blood pressure.10

Heavy drinking may also cause an imbalance in hormones that regulate the body’s fluids and blood pressure.10

The risk of CHD and stroke is increased by high triglyceride levels, or fat, in the blood. Some research has found that alcohol can increase those levels.10,11

Cardiomyopathy may be linked to cell death, which can also be caused by long-term excessive drinking.10

Effects of Alcohol on the Brain

Alcohol directly affects the brain and can cause significant changes in a person’s mood and behavior.1,2 

Initially, alcohol may have stimulating effects that produce feelings of euphoria, or intense happiness. But as blood alcohol levels rise, alcohol has depressant effects on the brain, leading to slower reaction times, lack of coordination, cognitive impairment, and sedation.12

Over time, the alcohol-associated changes to the brain and its functions can also drive compulsive, uncontrollable use and may ultimately contribute to a devastating cycle of addiction. This can be particularly worrisome in adolescents, whose brains are still developing and even more vulnerable to alcohol’s toxic effects.13,14

In young adulthood, alcohol may negatively influence neurological functioning in several key brain regions and signaling pathways, potentially resulting in:14

  • Lower IQ.
  • Loss of motivation.
  • Higher impulsivity and risk-taking.
  • Reduced attention span.
  • Addiction.

Alcohol and Cancer Risks

Studies have also linked alcohol use and misuse to an increased risk for certain cancers, including:2,9,15

  • Breast cancer.
  • Colon cancer.
  • Esophageal, mouth, and throat cancers.
  • Liver cancer.
  • Prostate cancer.
  • Stomach cancer.

Researchers provide a number of possible explanations for this increased risk. One is that the process of breaking down alcohol can damage DNA. DNA controls cellular growth and, when damaged, can lead to uncontrollable growth and the growth of potentially cancerous tumors.15

Another explanation is that chronic heavy alcohol use can weaken the immune system. This can happen in various ways such as alcohol preventing immune cells from being released into the body, or disrupting the production of proteins that immune cells need to do their jobs.9

Regular and excessive drinking can also increase estrogen levels in women, which can lead to a higher risk of breast cancer.16

Alcohol Dependence and Addiction

Chronic alcohol use can lead to dependence, which occurs when the body becomes so used to alcohol in its system that it begins to need the substance to feel and function normally.18

Once a person develops dependence, they will experience withdrawal if they abruptly stop drinking or significantly reduce the amount they drink.18

Alcohol withdrawal symptoms may include:19

  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Elevated blood pressure.
  • Sweating.
  • Shaking or tremors.
  • Extreme confusion.
  • Hallucinations.

Other withdrawal symptoms can include irritability, achiness, anxiety, and sleep problems.19

Because alcohol withdrawal can be so distressing and uncomfortable, some people may continually drink in order to avoid experiencing withdrawal. This can be a sign of an alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction.1,19

Alcohol Addiction Treatment in Mississippi

It is never too late to get help. At our inpatient drug and alcohol rehab in Mississippi, we offer different levels of addiction treatment and services designed to meet the individual needs of each patient, including:

  • Medical detox.
  • Inpatient or residential treatment.
  • Outpatient programs.
  • Sober living.

At Oxford, our rehab admissions process is designed to develop a treatment plan tailored to you, with admissions navigators available around the clock to review your drug and alcohol rehab coverage and other rehab payment options.

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol addiction, call to begin the path to recovery today.

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