13 Complications of Alcoholism: How Long-Term Heavy Drinking Affects Your Body

Last Updated: Sep 20th 2019

Reviewed by Brittany Polansky

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that there are over 16 million patients diagnosed with alcoholism in the US. Understanding this disease may be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. But it’s not impossible if it means saving yourself or the people you love the most.

Check out this article to familiarize yourself with the many short and long term complications of alcoholism. Arm yourself with this knowledge today so that you can avoid complications further down the road for you and your family

Alcohol and Consumption Metrics

To begin to understand the short and long term complications of alcoholism, it’s important to consider some of these metrics to understand their significance with alcoholism.

What’s a “Drink”?

In the US, alcoholic beverages contain approximately 0.6 ounces (or 14.0 grams) of pure alcohol. These levels of alcohol are found in the following beverages:

  • 1, 12-ounce bottle or can of beer;
  • 1, 5-ounce glass of wine;
  • 1, 8-ounce glass of malt liquor; and
  • 1.5-ounces of distilled liquor.

Casual/Heavy Drinking

You might have heard the terms “casual” or “heavy” drinker. Each label is defined by the different number of drinks consumed in a specific time frame.

“Casual” drinking for men includes drinking two alcoholic beverages a day. For women, “casual” drinking means consuming one alcoholic beverage a day.
“Heavy” or chronic drinking for men is defined as consuming more than 15 drinks per week. For women, this number is defined as eight or more drinks in a week.

Blood Alcohol Content

Blood alcohol content (BAC) refers to how much alcohol is present in your bloodstream. If someone has a BAC of .20, that means that .2% of their blood is alcohol. BAC levels will depend on the number of drinks consumed, how long it took someone to finish the drinks as well as their own body weight.

Short Term Complications of Alcoholism

There are many short term complications you may notice in a chronic drinker. These complications may seem temporary in nature and only have immediate consequences. Some of these short term complications include:

1. Sudden Weight Gain

More alcohol in your day means more calories in your system. Those drinks don’t come for free.

The added disadvantage is that alcohol is also an appetite stimulant. You might be taking in more food or making poor eating choices when you drink.

2. Blurry/Distorted Vision

Drinking will cause your pupils to dilate and constrict at much slower speeds. This reduces your eye’s ability to adjust for shadows and brightness. Drivers who have been drinking can’t adapt as quickly when facing oncoming headlights.

3. Blood Shot Eyes

Alcohol dehydrates your system and your eyes look tired and red. If you have excessive amounts of alcohol in your system, the blood vessels on your eye’s surface will get dilated and create an inflamed, red appearance on the surface. Alcohol can also cause the vessels in the whites of your eye to become enlarged.

4. Insomnia

Some may think that drinking alcohol can help stimulate sleep. Alcohol, however, interferes with the body’s regulating system to bring on sleep and stimulate sleep homeostasis. Alcohol will also interrupt a good night’s sleep because it relaxes the muscles in the upper airway and makes snoring a symphonic possibility for anyone around (including you!)

5. Seizures

Seizures happen when there are too many chemical changes attacking the brain that increases its electrical activity. Research is divided on whether drinking or drinking withdrawals are the main culprit for seizures. Regardless of the source, seizures can be traced back to dehydration and low blood sugar that can result from drinking.

6. Anxiety

Alcohol will alter your serotonin “feel good” hormone levels. Alcohol can also lower your blood sugar and increase your heart rate. As a result, some may experience more anxiety or panic attacks.

7. Garbled Speech

When alcohol enters your system, your brain slows down your reflexes and ability to time your movements. Drinking can also suppress your bodies production of glutamate that stimulates energy and excitement. As a result, drinkers will begin to slur their words or slow down their speech.

8. Sweating

Drinking alcohol will increase your heart rate and enlarge your skin’s blood vessels. This will trigger your perspiration. Your body will either react with excessive sweating immediately or long after you’ve finished drinking and gone to bed (night sweats.)

9. Nausea

When your stomach is exposed to too much alcohol, it produces more than it’s normal share of stomach acid. The end result is an ongoing feeling of nausea.

Long Term Complications from Alcoholism

Over the long term, the severity and number of complications associated with alcoholism increase dramatically. Long term complications associated with alcoholism include chronic health problems such as strokes, liver or heart disease. In 2018, alcohol was cited as the cause of 2 million deaths worldwide.

Here are some examples of long term complications that can result from too much drinking:

10. Diminished Brain Functions

Alcoholism is considered a disease because it can change the function and complete genetic makeup of one of your most important organs – your brain. The brain’s primary parts include the cerebral cortex, cerebellum, and limbic system.

Heavy drinking shrinks these areas that control our mobility and ability to perform executive functions. Examples of some of these brain diseases include dementia and Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome.

11. Stomach Complications

Too much stomach acid in your system from drinking can cause a host of health problems such as ulcers, gastritis or internal bleeding. Extreme levels of stomach acid can also cause stomach cancer.

12. Kidney Failure

Alcohol diminishes your kidney’s ability to filter damaging substances from your blood. High alcohol levels will also diminish hormones that can help proper kidney functions. Excessive amounts of alcohol will also dehydrate your body and impair the cells that are necessary for the kidneys to do their job.

13. Liver Failure

Our livers are the primary organ that processes alcohol. Liver enzymes can metabolize alcohol, but only in small doses. Any unabsorbed alcohol levels left sitting in our systems lead to cirrhosis, fibrosis or hepatitis.

Next Steps

If you or a loved one is fighting alcoholism, it’s time to act now. Contact your physician and get their guidance on how to recognize any complications from alcoholism that appear in your life. They can also help you create a plan for treatment and avoid relapse.

Don’t forget to check our website for more helpful advice on how to recognize the symptoms of alcoholism. Educate yourself today so that you can stop the destruction of this deadly disease. 

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Brittany Polansky

Brittany PolanskyBrittany has been working in behavioral health since 2012 and is a Primary Clinician at our facility. She is an LCSW and holds a master’s degree in social work. She has great experience with chemical dependency and co-occurring mental health diagnoses as well as various therapeutic techniques. Brittany is passionate about treating all clients with dignity and respect, and providing a safe environment where clients can begin their healing journey in recovery.