How alcohol affects your health

Alcohol is used to make wine, beer, spirits and liqueurs. It is a legal, sedative drug that can cause addiction or dependency for people who drink too much. Alcohol can change behaviour. Alcohol abuse harms your health and damages relationships and society through violence, crime, accidents and drink driving.

Drinking too much

When you drink too much on a single occasion, the immediate effects are:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • a hangover

The long-term effects on your health are more serious when you binge drink or regularly drink too much. 

Drink problems

You might have a drink problem if your drinking is:

  • damaging your health and relationships
  • disrupting your work, education or lifestyle

Young and old people can have a drink problem depending on how often they drink and the way they drink.

Having a drink problem doesn’t mean you’re addicted to alcohol, but you could become addicted if you don’t reduce the role alcohol has in your life.

Alcoholism

An alcoholic cannot control or stop their harmful drink. You can die from alcoholism. It is an illness where you have an addiction or dependence on alcohol.  You experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking.

Binge drinking

Binge drinking means drinking too much alcohol in a short time. For a man, drinking more than eight units of alcohol on one occasion is a binge. For a woman, it’s more than six units on one occasion.

If you binge drink, you could develop long-term or permanent health problems. Binge drinking can cause:

  • blackouts
  • memory loss
  • anxiety
  • irregular heartbeat

Hangover

A hangover follows a bout of heavy drinking. When you’re hungover, you’re dehydrated and experiencing alcohol poisoning. You also:

  • have a headache
  • feel sick
  • feel tired
  • become irritable

Brain damage

Alcohol can damage your brain. Brain damage affects your:

  • behaviour
  • memory
  • ability to learn

Alcohol is very harmful to young people because their brains are still developing.

If you’re a regular heavy drinker, you risk:

  • permanent brain damage
  • mental health problems
  • alcoholism

Cancer

Alcohol is the second biggest risk factor for cancer after smoking. If you regularly drink above the weekly alcohol limits, you're at greater risk of developing:

  • mouth cancer
  • throat cancer (upper throat)
  • oesophageal cancer (food pipe)
  • laryngeal cancer (voice box)
  • colon cancer
  • breast cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • liver cancer

Breast cancer

Alcohol can increase a woman’s risk of breast cancer. The more you drink, the greater the risk. Drinking alcohol changes your body’s hormone levels, including the female sex hormone oestrogen.

Oestrogen is essential for normal sexual development and functioning female reproductive organs. But it can stimulate the growth of breast cancer.

Heart and circulation

Alcohol can cause high blood pressure, which increases your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Alcohol also weakens heart muscles, which can affect the lungs, liver, brain and other body systems, and also cause heart failure.

Binge drinking and drinking heavily over longer periods can cause an irregular heartbeat. This condition is linked to sudden death.

Lungs

If you drink alcohol heavily, you're prone to lung infections such as pneumonia. You could also suffer a collapsed lung.

When a person vomits due to drinking alcohol, they could choke if vomit gets into their lungs.

Liver

Fat deposits develop in your liver if you drink too much alcohol. This can inflame the liver and cause alcoholic hepatitis, which can result in liver failure and death.

Excessive alcohol can permanently scar and damage the liver, resulting in liver cirrhosis. This increases the risk of liver cancer.  

A woman’s liver takes longer to break down alcohol and also longer to repair when damaged.

Stomach

Excessive drinking can lead to:

  • stomach ulcers
  • internal bleeding

Alcohol can also cause gastritis, which means stomach inflammation. This can prevent you absorbing vitamins from food and increase the risk of cancer.

Pancreas

Heavy or long-term drinking can cause inflammation of the pancreas. It is a very painful condition where a drinker experiences:

  • vomiting
  • fever
  • weight loss

A drinker can die from this condition.

Intestines

Heavy drinking can irritate the lining of your intestines and cause:

  • inflammation and ulcers
  • intestinal and colon cancer

Damage to your intestines also affects your body's ability to absorb nutrients and vitamins.

Kidneys

Heavy drinking can increase your risk of developing high blood pressure. This causes chronic kidney disease.

Fertility

Long-term drinking can cause infertility in men and women. Men can also become impotent.

Drinking alcohol when pregnant can damage your unborn baby's development.

Bones

Alcohol interferes with your body's ability to absorb calcium. If you lack calcium, your bones become weak and thin.

Weight gain

You can put on weight if you drink alcohol regularly. Alcoholic drinks are high in calories due to starch and sugar content. The calories are empty because there is no nutritional value in alcohol.  

Calories in alcoholic drinks

You can compare the calories (kcal) in different quantities of drinks:

  • a pint (568ml) of four per cent  beer has 182 calories
  • a medium glass (175ml) of 13 per cent  wine has 159 calories
  • a pint of 4.5 per cent  cider has 216 calories
  • a measure (35ml) of 40 per cent  spirit has 85 calories

Skin

Alcohol dehydrates your body and skin. It also widens blood vessels, causing your skin to look red or blotchy.

Sexual health

Binge drinking makes you lose your inhibitions and affects your judgement. This may make you less likely to use a condom, increasing your risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) such as chlamydia, HIV or hepatitis. It can also lead to an unplanned pregnancy.

Mental health

Alcohol is linked to mental health problems including:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • risk-taking behaviour
  • personality disorders
  • schizophrenia
  • suicide

Excessive drinking can disrupt normal sleeping patterns and cause:

  • insomnia
  • lack of restful sleep

This can make you feel stressed and anxious.

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