Alcoholism is, quite simply, an addiction to alcohol. It negatively impacts the individual’s body, relationships, occupation, and finances. Over time, alcohol rewires the brain, requiring the individual to drink more in order to experience the same intoxicating effects. Brain damage, liver failure, and heart and gastrointestinal diseases can ultimately result.
Stages of alcohol abuse
Early alcohol abuse: Characterized by occasional binge drinking. For women, this is 3 drinks per day or 7 drinks per week. For men, 4 drinks per day or 14 drinks per week. These individuals usually display two to three symptoms of alcohol abuse. This stage may be reversible without professional alcohol treatment.
Problematic alcohol abuse: Years of daily drinking results in alcohol withdrawal in the absence of alcohol. These individuals will have four to five symptoms of alcohol abuse and should undergo a medical detoxification program.
End stage alcohol abuse: Years of heavy drinking lead to chronic, severe health problems. Individuals experience withdrawal symptoms and require an intensive level of care in a medical detoxification center.
Signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication
- Slurred speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Bloodshot eyes
- Flushed face
- Violent or aggressive outbursts
- Swaying, staggering or stumbling
- Excessive perspiration
- Alcohol on breath
- Blank or dazed look
Behavioral complications associated with alcohol abuse
Addiction results in compulsive and harmful behaviors that can affect every aspect of an individual’s life, including their occupation, relationships, and home life. Complications of alcohol abuse include:
- School/work problems, such as increased absences and poor grades/work performance
- Social problems, such as fighting
- Withdrawal from social activities
- Legal problems, such as arrests for driving under the influence or physically hurting someone while drunk
- Physical problems, such as hangovers, or illnesses
- Financial problems
- Lying, cheating, or stealing
- Relationship problems
- Unwanted, unplanned, or unprotected sexual activity
- Disruption of normal growth and sexual development
- Physical or sexual assault
- Higher risk for suicide and homicide
- High risk for alcohol-related car crashes and other unintentional injuries, such as burns, falls, and drowning
Medical complications associated with alcohol abuse
Alcohol affects every organ system in the body, including the brain, heart, gastrointestinal system, liver, bones, and kidneys. Many people die from medical conditions associated with chronic alcohol abuse. Alcohol is also associated with many cancers including liver, breast, esophageal, oral, and pancreatic cancers. Drinking while pregnant can result in the child being born with fetal alcohol syndrome. The following are known medical complications directly related to chronic alcohol consumption:
- Acute and chronic pancreatitis: Large, inflamed pancreas resulting in severe abdominal pain, back pain, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite.
- Esophageal tears (Boerhavve’s syndrome): A tear in the esophagus resulting in coughing and vomiting up blood, dangerously low blood pressure, and death if resuscitation is delayed.
- Cirrhosis of the liver: Shrinkage of the liver due to long-term fibrosis and scar tissue from alcohol consumption. Ultimately, cirrhosis can lead to liver failure, indicated by swelling of the abdomen or legs, dilated veins, jaundice, and easily bruising and bleeding.
- Dilated cardiomyopathy: The heart becomes enlarged and weakened, resulting in heart failure.
- Alcoholic hepatitis: Liver disease that can be reversible with early intervention, but can lead to cirrhosis over time.
- Peripheral neuropathy: Numbness, tingling, or “zingers” in hands and feet.
- Gastritis: Inflamed stomach lining leading to stomach pain, bleeding, poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, and ulcers.
- Osteoporosis: Low bone density which makes the individual prone to fractures.
- Wernicke encephalopathy: A condition involving loss of coordination and repetitive uncontrolled eye movements.
- Korsakoff psychosis: A condition involving loss of memory, hallucinations, and delusions.
- Dementia: Permanent, long-term memory loss and cognitive impairment.
- Gout: A large, painful inflamed joint, most commonly in the big toe.
- High blood pressure
- Abuse of other drugs
- Death from alcohol poisoning
Alcohol poisoning is a serious, and sometimes deadly, consequence of drinking large amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Alcohol poisoning can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, weight, or alcohol tolerance.
When alcohol is consumed, it has a very quick and aggressive effect on the body. In fact, it takes roughly one hour for the body to metabolize 0.25 ounces of alcohol. Because of this, alcohol can be absorbed into the bloodstream in as little as 30 minutes after drinking. Multiple drinks build up, quickly increasing the blood alcohol content (BAC). Since each individual is different, there is no surefire way to determine how much someone can drink without risking alcohol poisoning. When the body is unable to process the alcohol quickly enough, alcohol poisoning can occur. Signs of alcohol poisoning include:
- Profound mental confusion
- Loss of consciousness
- Slowed, shallow breathing
- Clammy skin
- Pale or bluish skin color
- Slow heart rate
- Low body temperature
Alcohol poisoning requires immediate medical intervention. Anyone exhibiting the above signs and symptoms after ingesting alcohol should immediately be rushed to the hospital by ambulance to undergo medical care.