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Alcohol Abuse

Alcoholic drinks harm you when you have too many of them. No set number of drinks means too much. Drinking that affects your life or your health is called alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse can hurt your relationships with others. You may lose friends, a spouse, or even your job. You may be abusing alcohol if any of the following are true for you:

  • Duties at home or with child care suffer because of drinking.

  • Duties at work or in school suffer because of drinking.

  • You have missed work or school because of drinking.

  • You use alcohol while driving or using machinery.

  • You have legal problems such as arrests because of drinking.

  • You keep drinking even though it causes serious problems in your life.

Health problems

Alcohol abuse causes many health problems. Sometimes this can happen after only drinking a “little."  The effects depend on how much you drink at one time and how often you drink. The effects also depend on how long you drink. For example, months, years, or decades. Alcohol affects all parts of your body


Alcohol affects the central nervous system. It can damage parts of the brain that control your balance and gait, memory, thinking, and emotions. It can cause:

  • Memory loss

  • Blackouts

  • Depression

  • Agitation

  • Sleep problems

  • Seizures

These changes may be long term (permanent).

Heart and blood vessels

Alcohol can damage heart muscle (cardiomyopathy). This can lead to:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Irregular heartbeat

  • Atrial fibrillation

  • Leg swelling

  • Heart failure

Alcohol also makes the blood vessels stiff. This causes high blood pressure.

All of these problems raise your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.


Alcohol causes fat to build up in the liver. This affects how the liver works. Alcohol also raises the risk for hepatitis. It can cause:

  • Belly (abdominal) pain

  • Belly swelling

  • Loss of appetite

  • Yellowed eyes or skin (jaundice)

  • Bleeding problems

  • Cirrhosis

This can make it harder for you to fight off infections.

The liver changes keep it from removing toxins in your blood that can cause brain disease (encephalopathy). This condition cause:

  • Confusion

  • Changed level of consciousness

  • Personality changes

  • Memory loss

  • Seizures, coma, and death

The liver changes can also cause the veins in your esophagus and stomach to become thin and swollen with blood (varices). This can cause bleeding and vomiting of blood.


Alcohol can cause swelling (inflammation) of the pancreas (pancreatitis). This can cause belly pain, fever, and diabetes.

Immune system

Alcohol weakens your immune system. This makes it harder for you to fight infections and colds. It also makes it more likely for you to get pneumonia and tuberculosis.


Alcohol raises the risk for several types of cancer. These include cancer of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast.

Sexual function

Alcohol can lead to sexual problems.

Home care

These guidelines will help you deal with alcohol abuse:

  • Admit you have a problem with alcohol.

  • Ask for help from your healthcare provider. Also ask for help from trusted family members or close friends.

  • Get help from people trained in dealing with alcohol abuse. This may be one-on-one counseling or group therapy. Or it may be an alcohol treatment program.

  • Join a self-help group for alcohol abuse such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

  • Stay away from people who abuse alcohol or tempt you to drink.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised. Contact these groups to get help:

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing or slow, irregular breathing

  • Chest pain

  • Sudden weakness on one side of your body or sudden trouble speaking

  • Heavy bleeding or vomiting blood

  • Very drowsy or trouble awakening

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate

  • Seizure

When to seek medical care

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur: 

  • Confusion

  • Seeing, hearing, or feeling things that aren’t there (hallucinations)

  • Pain in your upper belly that gets worse

  • Vomiting that continues, vomiting with blood, or black or tarry stools

  • Severe shakiness

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Date Last Reviewed: 1/1/2022
© 2000-2023 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.