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Diseases From Alcoholism

Health Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse can have a number of short-term and long-term effects. Immediate problems to arise from alcohol intoxication include memory problems, slurred speech, behavioral changes, and slowed reaction time. Excessive drinking over a long period of time can increase the risk of developing a number of chronic and harmful diseases.

Read on to learn more about diseases caused by alcohol abuse and how to get treatment, including:

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, or alcohol use disorder, is characterized by chronic and problematic drinking that causes significant dysfunction and distress in the person’s life. 2

In 2014, about 16 million people ages 18 and older suffered from an addiction to alcohol. But only about 9% of this population received treatment for alcoholism. 3

One way to keep drinking in check is to limit yourself to a moderate level of alcohol consumption. Moderate drinking is no more than 2 drinks per day for men and no more than 1 drink per day for women. 4 Unfortunately, limiting yourself to moderate intake, in the long run, may not be enough – in some cases, even a drink or two per day can contribute to health issues.

However, if you consistently have more than a few drinks per day, you increase your risk for adverse health effects, addiction and memory lapses.

Diseases Caused by Alcohol Abuse

Persistent, heavy drinking can cause severe and potentially fatal health problems. It can damage organs and have life-threatening consequences. An estimated 88,000 people die every year due to alcohol abuse. 5

Below are some of the common diseases caused by alcohol abuse.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

Drinking alcohol and eating a poor diet can cause drastic changes to the brain over time. Many alcoholics do not receive proper nourishment and are deficient in many necessary vitamins as a result. 19 One common deficiency is thiamine, or vitamin B1, which is found in peas, soybeans, nuts, whole grain cereals, and meat and poultry. 19

Up to 80% of people suffering from an addiction to alcohol are deficient in vitamin B1, 19 and they are at risk of developing a severe neurologic condition called Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome. 19

The syndrome has two components: Wernicke’s encephalopathy, which is short-lived, and Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is a more chronic memory disorder. 19

The symptoms of Wernicke’s encephalopathy include: 19, 20

  • Involuntary eye movements.
  • Double vision.
  • Eyelid drooping.
  • Paralysis of nerves that control the eye.
  • Coordination problems.
  • Confusion.

Between 80% and 90% of people suffering from Wernicke’s encephalopathy will also develop Korsakoff’s syndrome (sometimes referred to as Korsakoff psychosis). 19 Symptoms of Korsakoff’s syndrome include: 19, 20
  • Chronic memory and learning difficulties.
  • Unintentional fabrication or distortion of facts and stories to account for memory lapses.
  • Issues with coordination.
  • Trouble walking.
  • Hallucinations.

People with Korsakoff’s syndrome have problems making new memories. 19 They often forget recent events and conversations and are easily frustrated by these difficulties. 19

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

Alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a heart condition caused by long-term and excessive consumption of alcohol, which is toxic to the heart muscle. 8 Typically, people who drink an estimated 7 or 8 drinks a day for at least 5 years have an increased risk of developing this disease. 6

Cardiomyopathy has two stages: an early phase without any symptoms and a later phase when the symptoms begin to appear. 6

The symptomatic phase includes signs of heart failure such as: 8

  • Decreased ejection fraction (the amount of blood the ventricle pumps with each heart beat).
  • Peripheral edema (accumulation of fluid in the limbs).
  • Extra heart sounds due to dysfunction of the left ventricle.
  • Pulmonary rales (crackling in the lungs upon stethoscopic examination).
  • Increased jugular venous pressure.

Cardiomyopathy affects the heart (especially the left ventricle) by causing dilation, increased muscle mass and thinning of the walls. 7 Increased mass means the heart has to work harder to pump blood efficiently.

These changes largely depend on the stage. If someone is diagnosed with the disease and continues to drink, he or she is at risk of eventual heart failure. 6 But left ventricular function can improve if the person remains abstinent from alcohol after a diagnosis. 7

If you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol, call to speak to a treatment placement advisor about finding a rehab program.

Mouth and Esophageal Cancer

The National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has identified alcohol consumption as a carcinogen, which is a substance known to cause cancer. 10 Heavy alcohol consumption over an extended period of time can increase the drinker’s risk of developing mouth and esophageal cancer. 10

Drinking about 3.5 drinks or more per day can greatly increase a person’s risk of certain cancers, including: 10

  • Oral cavity cancer.
  • Throat cancer.
  • Larynx (voice box) cancer.

Often, people who drink also smoke cigarettes or cigars, which is another risk factor for mouth and throat cancer. 10

Esophageal squamous cell carcinoma, a specific type of esophageal cancer, is also associated with excessive alcohol use, especially in drinkers with deficiencies in certain enzymes that break down alcohol. 10

Cirrhosis and Liver Cancer

The liver metabolizes toxins, such as alcohol. But when someone drinks alcohol excessively and over a long period of time, it puts stress on the liver.

Cirrhosis impairs the functioning of the liver, and the damage cannot be reversed. But catching the disease early can prevent further harm. 9

Some symptoms of cirrhosis are: 9

  • Nausea.
  • Fatigue.
  • Weight loss.
  • Swelling of the stomach.
  • Jaundice (yellowing of the eyes and skin).
  • Peripheral edema (swelling due to accumulation of fluid in tissues, usually in the ankles, legs and feet).
  • Skin itching.
  • Redness on palms.
  • Asterixis (rhythmic hand tremor).
  • Mental confusion.

Cirrhosis can eventually lead to liver cancer. 11 Liver cancer is also often a consequence of having the hepatitis C virus, which heavy drinkers have an increased risk of being infected with. 11

Breast Cancer

Research has revealed that any amount of drinking, even moderate, can increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. 10 The risk is anywhere from 7% to 12% higher for women consuming as little as 10 grams of alcohol (just under one drink) per day. 10

The relationship between alcohol intake and breast cancer is dose-dependent. The greater the amount and the longer the time period, the higher the risk. 11

Alcoholic Hepatitis

Alcoholic hepatitis, which commonly co-occurs with cirrhosis of the liver, 13 is typically seen in chronic, heavy drinkers.

Most people affected are between 40 and 60 years old, 12 and they often stop drinking a few weeks before a diagnosis. 13 It is estimated that between 30% and 50% of people with severe alcoholic hepatitis will die due to the disease. 12

Some symptoms of alcoholic hepatitis include: 13

  • Jaundice (yellowing of eyes and skin).
  • Fever.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Enlarged liver.
  • Pain in upper right quadrant (stomach and lower chest).

Malnutrition is often seen in people with alcoholic hepatitis, as well as a variant of this condition called alcoholic steatohepatitis, which is characterized by additional fat accumulation in the liver and inflammation. 18 Alcohol disrupts fat metabolism and increases production of fatty acids, and a poor diet can influence these effects. 18 Other symptoms that aren’t specific to alcoholic hepatitis are nausea, vomiting and a general feeling of discomfort or unease.13

As the disease progresses, additional complications may include: 13

  • Kidney failure (hepatorenal syndrome).
  • Hepatic encephalopathy (brain dysfunction secondary to liver damage).
  • High blood pressure in the main vein of the liver (portal hypertension).
  • Bleeding problems due to deficient clotting mechanisms.

People with this condition are more susceptible to infections, such as urinary tract infections, bacterial pneumonia, tuberculosis and bacterial peritonitis. 13

Get help immediately if you or your loved one has any of these signs or symptoms. You can catch the disease early and get proper medical and addiction treatment.


Prolonged and heavy drinking can damage the pancreas, a glandular organ that helps regulate blood sugar levels and is an important part of the digestive process. 14

Acute pancreatitis, which is temporary swelling of the pancreas and can lead to cell death, 15, 17 can result from alcohol abuse.

Some common symptoms include: 16

  • Vomiting.
  • Nausea.
  • Intense epigastric pain and tenderness (mid-stomach pain).

Circulation can fail in serious cases, 16 which means that the person’s vital organs and tissues do not receive enough blood. Once treated, acute pancreatitis episodes can return repeatedly and are typically caused by an increase in alcohol consumption.

Chronic pancreatitis is permanent damage or scarring of the pancreas, resulting from long-term swelling or inflammation. 17

Complications from chronic pancreatitis include: 16, 17

  • Malabsorption (bloating, diarrhea, indigestion).
  • Diabetes.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Peritonitis (inflammation of the abdominal cavity).
  • Pancreatic pseudocyst.
  • Gastric outlet obstruction.
  • Bile duct obstruction.

If you are diagnosed with acute pancreatitis caused by alcohol consumption, seek treatment for your substance abuse to prevent further complications and the development of chronic pancreatitis.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

Getting treatment for alcohol abuse can help prevent health problems as well as other issues related to addiction, including damaged relationships, loss of employment and legal complications such as DUIs.

The different types of treatment programs include:

  • Traditional inpatient treatment: Those suffering from severe alcoholism may benefit from this type of treatment because it eliminates access to alcohol and offers medically supervised detox. The length of your recovery program depends on individual needs, but most last from 30 days to 60 days to 90 days, though they can be longer if necessary. Most programs include detox, individual and group therapy, 12-Step meetings and aftercare.
  • Luxury inpatient treatment: These centers offer the same services as traditional programs but are located in desirable settings and resemble a resort atmosphere. They offer additional amenities, such as spa treatments, yoga, golf, swimming, gourmet meals and horseback riding.
  • Executive inpatient treatment: These inpatient facilities cater specifically to working professionals, such as CEOs. They offer extra amenities such as high-speed Internet, work rooms and private phones.
  • Outpatient treatment: This type of treatment has helped many people with less severe alcohol addictions. It has less structure than an inpatient program and allows you to schedule recovery services around your other obligations. Outpatient treatments can include group counseling, individual therapy, family therapy, education classes and relapse prevention, among many other options.
  • Dual diagnosis: Some rehabs may specialize in treating alcoholism and a co-occurring mental health disorder or addiction, which is known as dual diagnosis. Find a treatment center that can address all your issues to decrease the risk of relapse.
  • 12-Step meetings: Twelve-Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, help members get clean and sober by completing a set of recovery steps with the help of a sponsor. These programs are run by those in recovery and do not include professional counseling, medical care or supervised detox. Learn more about AA and the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved medications to treat alcohol dependence. These medications are most effective at promoting abstinence when they are used in combination with a form of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Below are the most common medications used to treat alcoholism: 1

  • Naltrexone: prevents the desired effects of consuming alcohol and also decreases urges to drink.
  • Acamprosate: restores chemical imbalances in the brain and can help prevent cravings.
  • Disulfiram: causes unpleasant side effects, such as facial flushing, sweating, nausea and heart palpitations, when the person drinks alcohol. It can help to deter drinking behaviors in trigger situations, but may have low compliance in unmotivated patients.

American Addiction Centers has helped thousands recover from addiction and we can help you or your loved one too. Check your insurance to find out instantly if your insurance provider may be able to cover all or part of the cost of rehab and associated therapies. You can also sign up 24/7 text support for addiction questions at your convenience.

Find an Alcohol Recovery Center

Participating in a recovery program for alcohol abuse can help you or your loved one avoid the health consequences of alcohol abuse. If you need help finding a program near you, call for free at to speak to a treatment support representative. You can receive treatment options based on your insurance coverage.

Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to learn more about low-cost treatment centers or support groups in your area. You can also contact free alcohol abuse hotline numbers.