The effects of alcohol on the body

What persistent drinking of alcohol can do to your body in the short-term and long-term.

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Drinking alcohol affects people differently. Depending on factors such as your ability to limit your drinking and your tolerance to alcohol, the overall short and long term effects of alcohol can have on your physical and mental health may be different to another person.

What is clear, however, is that drinking alcohol beyond the recommended guidelines can have significant short and long term effects on your body.

Alcohol abuse and an increasing consumption of alcohol can lead to alcoholism, where you depend on it in order to function. This can put you at risk of serious conditions including liver damage, which may not become apparent until later in life.

How long do the effects of alcohol last?

The answer to this question depends on many factors. Your size, general tolerance for alcohol, how much you’ve drunk and even things like how much you’ve eaten that day will all impact the longevity of short-term alcohol effects.

Generally speaking, your body is able to metabolise (process) one standard alcoholic drink per hour. That doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘buzz’ people experience when drunk will wear off at the same rate. Some of the things we experience when drunk, like slurred speech or difficulty concentrating, can last for hours even after your last drink – especially if you’ve had quite a lot of alcohol.

Sobering up can be sped up by sleeping, exercising or drinking lots of water. Depending on how much alcohol has been consumed, alcohol can stay in your system for many hours after your last drink.  Typically, alcohol can still be detected in your system for:

  • Up to 6 hours after your last alcoholic drink via a blood test
  • Approximately 12-14 hours after alcohol was last consumed via a urine test
  • Approximately 12-14 hours after alcohol was last consumed after a breath test
  • Approximately 12-14 hours after alcohol was last consumed via a salvia test
  • Up to 90 after last consuming alcohol via a hair test

Short-term effects of alcohol

Even when drinking a glass or two of wine or a pint of beer, you may notice the short-term effects of alcohol. Along with reduced tension and lowered inhibitions, you may have a problem concentrating while your reflexes and reaction time may slow down.

When drinking a high amount of alcohol over a short space of time, this can stimulate a series of unwanted short-term side effects.

Short-term effects of alcohol are:

  • Slurred speech
  • Sense of euphoria or giddiness
  • Feeling relaxed
  • Drowsiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor vision
  • Fluctuating emotions
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of coordination and reflexes
  • Passing out
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Alcohol-induced psychosis

The next day you might also experience dehydration, headaches, nausea or increased anxiety – known as “hangnxiety”.

Long-term effects of alcohol

If drunk frequently over a long period of time, alcohol can affect many different aspects of your life. From how you feel and your behaviour to how your body functions, here are some long-term effects of alcohol:

  • Changes in your weight and appetite
  • Isolating yourself from friends and family
  • Trouble sleeping or even insomnia
  • Difficulty focusing or concentrating, either at work or home
  • Reduction in your libido
  • Loss of interest or motivation to do things you once enjoyed
  • General fatigue or feelings of lethargy
  • Lack of concern for your personal hygiene of physical appearance

These effects are all potential signs of an alcohol problem. If you’re experiencing some of these effects over a long period of time, it could be that you have an alcohol abuse disorder and should consider professional support.

How alcohol affects your body


Interferes with a number of neurotransmitters lowering our brain activity and energy levels. Alcohol-related brain damage can affect memory and learning.

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.

Mental health

Can contribute to and worsen mental health symptoms, particularly related to depression, anxiety, and stress.


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

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


Can lead to distorted or double vision and bloodshot eyes from swollen blood vessels in the eyes.


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.

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.


Drinking heavily can increase the risk of experiencing gastritis, ulcers, and heartburn.

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

Kidneys and bladder

Binge drinking can cause a person to experience back pain as a result of the damage that alcohol has caused to the functioning of their kidneys. Long-term risk of kidney disease.

Alcohol prevents the kidneys from being able to reabsorb water, this causes the bladder to fill up with more fluid and also results in the rest of the body experiencing dehydration.


Alcohol vapour within the airway can cause damage to the lungs, nasal passages, and sinuses. Long-term drinking can impact immune cells involved in fighting off respiratory diseases.

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).


Alcohol irritates the gastrointestinal tract, inflames, and irritates the stomach. Frequent excessive alcohol consumption can cause damage to the small intestine.

In the long term, heavy drinking can damage the small intestine and cause bacteria and toxins to enter the bloodstream.


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.

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


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.


Alcohol decreases the production of saliva, which reduces a person’s defences against bacteria and plaque, which can lead to oral cavities and gum irritation or disease.


Alcohol can cause acid reflux, and reduce your ability to clear refluxed gastric acid. This can lead to heartburn. Chronic drinking can damage the tissue of the oesophagus, making it painful to swallow.


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.

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.

effects of alcohol on the body infographic

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

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