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When you drink a harmful level of alcohol, there is a danger of it damaging your whole body.

Alcohol has a particularly toxic effect on the liver and brain, as well as on the heart, stomach and pancreas. It can also seriously impact your mental health.

Within this blog, we will outline the different ways that heavy drinking can impact the body. For a more comprehensive understanding, you can also visit our interactive illustration The Effects of Alcohol on the Body for more information on the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol.

How does alcohol affect the brain?

Short-term impact

When you drink, your brain activity and energy levels lower, slowing down your speech, thoughts and movement. The more you drink, the more these are affected. This is due to alcohol affecting your brain chemicals. In severe cases, this can result in a coma.

Drinking a lot in a short period of time also affects your memory. For some people, they ‘blackout’ and struggle to remember what they did while under the influence of alcohol.

Long-term impact

Long-term heavy drinking can lead to alcohol-related brain damage, resulting in problems with learning and memory.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome is a brain disorder that can be caused by alcohol. This particular disorder affects the shape and structure of the brain, which can result in mental confusion, eye-related nerve paralysis and muscle coordination issues, and progress to short term memory problems.

How does alcohol affect the liver?

Short-term impact

Your liver can be affected by alcohol after one drinking session, but this is reversible.

Alcohol is broken down by the liver. When alcohol is excessive, the liver is unable to break it down, which can cause damage to the liver cells.

Binge drinking can increase a person’s risk of developing liver disease later on in life.

Long-term impact

Heavy drinking over a long period of time is something that can result in the development of alcohol-related liver damage such as alcohol hepatitis and alcohol cirrhosis.

Alcohol cirrhosis is the most advanced form of liver disease. This is where blood vessels stiffen and the liver’s structure distorts, damaging how it - and other organs - function.

How does alcohol affect the heart and your blood pressure?

Short-term impact

Binge drinking can increase your blood pressure temporarily, leading to an irregular heartbeat. This short-term change can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, particularly in older adults.

Long-term impact

Drinking high levels of alcohol over an extended period of time can lead to an increased heart rate and hypertension. These issues can result in strokes and/or heart attacks.

It can also increase the risk of cardiomyopathy. This is a disease of the heart muscle, where the weakened muscle makes it more difficult for the heart to pump blood around the body.

The impact of alcohol on the stomach

Short-term impact

When you drink, your stomach produces more acid than usual, which inflame and damage the stomach lining. This in turn can result in stomach pain, nausea, bloating and vomiting.

Long-term impact

When someone’s drinking is long-term and heavy, this can result in chronic alcohol gastritis. The damage and pain is severe, long-lasting and life threatening.

Chronic heavy drinking can also cause a person to struggle with bleeding or stomach ulcers as well as indigestion, stomach pain, bloating and nausea.

Alcohol’s effect on the kidneys and bladder

Short-term impact

Binge drinking can damage the kidneys and lead to back pain. This happens as alcohol overwhelms the kidneys with waste products, stopping them from functioning effectively.

This can then cause the bladder to fill up with more fluid. As this urine is more concentrated, it can irritate and inflame the lining of the bladder, resulting in urinary tract infections.

Long-term impact

The rise in blood pressure and cholesterol levels caused by regular heavy drinking can increase the risk of chronic kidney disease.

How does alcohol affect the lungs?

Short-term impact

When you drink alcohol and its vapour enters your airway, this can inflame the nasal passages and sinuses, stopping them from being able to fight off infection effectively. 

Also, as alcohol weakens the gag reflux, this can lead to people breathing in foreign objects, increasing the risk of choking and infection.

Long-term impact

Heavy chronic drinking can leave a person more at risk of developing conditions such as pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).

The impact of alcohol on the gut

Short-term impact

Drinking heavily, even for one session, can increase the risk of intestinal erosion and bleeding.

Alcohol also disrupts the natural digestion process, irritating the gastrointestinal tract and stomach. It interferes with the body's absorption of water and speeds up digestion through the large intestine.

Long-term impact

In the long-term, heavy drinking can damage the small intestine and cause bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream. This can damage organs throughout the body, particularly the liver and the brain.

Alcohol and its impact on reproduction

Short-term impact

Studies suggest that the more alcohol someone consumes, the more their fertility is likely to be affected. Drinking can also stunt the release of sex hormones, making it more difficult for someone to get and maintain an erection.

Long-term impact

Heavy and long-term alcohol consumption can affect people by causing menstrual and reproductive disorders.  

It can interfere with menstrual cycles, ovulation and fertility.

It can also cause impotence and infertility by reducing the production of testosterone and testicle shrinkage.

The impact of alcohol on bones

Long-term impact

When someone drinks heavily over a sustained time period, it can impact their bone quality and leave them at risk of osteoporosis.

Not only a risk for older adults, it can also impact teenagers and younger adults, as their body is building stores of calcium for long-term bone health.

How does alcohol affect the mouth?

Short-term impact

As alcohol reduces saliva production, this can increase the risk of oral cavities, gum irritation and gum disease, as saliva helps to protect the mouth from bacteria and plaque. The acidity of certain alcoholic drinks can also lead to tooth decay and oral cavities.

Long-term impact

Someone who is a chronic heavy drinker is more at risk of developing periodontal diseases due to their alcohol consumption, along with potential nutritional deficiencies and poor immunity.

How alcohol affects the skin

Short-term impact

Alcohol consumption can cause facial flushing, as blood vessels dilate and blood flow increases. Drinking can also lead to dehydrated, dry skin, as alcohol is a diuretic.

Long-term impact

Heavily drinking over a long period of time can result in the permanent dilation of blood vessels, which can result in spider veins and permanent reddening of the face. It can also lead to psoriasis, as well as seborrheic and nummular dermatitis.

Support and treatment for problem drinking   

Here at Priory Group, we are able to support people who are struggling with their alcohol consumption.

Our rehabilitation facilities, outpatient and day care services have helped many people to get started on their road to recovery. If you would like to find out more about how we can support you, please visit our dedicated addiction treatment page.

You can also get in contact with our team using the details below for more information on the treatment that we can provide to you.

Blog reviewed by Dr Patrick Mbaya (MB ChB, MSc, MD, FRCPsych, Cert. Psychopharmacology), Lead Consultant for Addictions at Priory Hospital Altrincham

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding addiction treatment and rehabilitation, please call 0800 144 8969 or click here to book a FREE ADDICTION ASSESSMENT. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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