Abuse of Alcohol

Understanding Alcohol

The intoxicating ingredient found in beer, wine and liquor is called ethyl alcohol or ethanol. Alcohol is a depressant that is absorbed from the stomach and small intestines into the bloodstream. It is then metabolized slowly by enzymes in the liver and circulates throughout the body when the liver cannot process it quickly enough. The effect of alcohol on the body is a direct result of how much alcohol is consumed. When a person drinks more alcohol than can be absorbed by their liver, they feel the effects of the alcohol reaching the other organs in the body, known widely as feeling drunk.

Many do not know the difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse. When the consumption of alcohol is disruptive to a person’s health, relationships and ability to work but there is no physical dependence, it is considered alcohol abuse.

Someone that abuses alcohol may find it difficult to fulfill responsibilities and may develop legal problems such as arrests or DUIs. Abusing alcohol for long periods of time can lead to an alcohol dependence or addiction.

An addiction to alcohol is a chronic disease akin to an addiction to drugs. Those with an alcohol addiction crave it physically and are unable to restrict themselves when drinking. Alcohol addiction leads to psychological problems and an inability to maintain responsibilities and relationships.

Alcohol Abuse

Nearly 88,000 people (approximately 62,000 men and 26,000 women) die from alcohol-related causes annually, making it the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States.

The standard accepted alcohol consumption is up to one drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks for men. 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol is considered a standard drink. Consuming alcohol beyond the standard accepted consumption in a short period of time is alcohol abuse.

Heavy drinking is classified as consuming 15 drinks or more per week for men and 8 drinks or more per week for women.

There are certain risk factors that can affect the way alcohol reacts to the body or how likely a person is to develop an alcohol addiction.

Some factors include:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Race or Ethnicity
  • Physical condition (weight, fitness level, etc.)
  • Amount of food consumed before drinking
  • How quickly the alcohol was consumed
  • Use of drugs or prescribed medicines
  • Family history of alcohol problems

Alcohol Abuse in Young Adults

College Students: College is a time of independence and learning, but it has become a popular place of constant alcohol consumption as well. When surveyed by a research group at the University of Michigan, 35.4% of college students admitted to binge drinking (five or more drinks in a row) in the past two weeks. In that same study, 42% of college students admitted to being intoxicated in the past month.

Effects of Alcohol Abuse on the Body

Alcohol impairs judgement, coordination and reaction time. The more alcohol that is consumed, the greater the effect on bodily functions. Every organ of the body is affected when drinking alcohol.

In 2012, one person died in an alcohol related car crash every 51 minutes. Alcohol-impaired motor vehicle crashes cost around $37 billion annually. For more information about drunk driving and consequences, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. They have guides that can help parents and caregivers prevent impaired and underage drinking.

Health Risks

Drinking alcohol in excess comes with several potential health dangers to the person drinking and the people around them.

Alcohol can affect many different organs in the body such as:

  • Brain: Alcohol interferes with brain communication pathways and can change mood, behavior, cognition and coordination.
  • Heart: Drinking can damage the heart and cause cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, strokes, and high blood pressure.
  • Liver: Alcohol can cause dangerous complications to your liver including inflammation, steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis, cirrhosis.
  • Pancreas: Pancreatitis is common in alcohol abusers. The pancreas produces a toxic substance when faced with too much alcohol that leads to inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels.
  • Immune System: Excessive alcohol consumption can weaken the immune system leading to pneumonia, tuberculosis and hinder the body’s ability to ward off infection.

Excessive intake of alcohol can lead to an increased risk of several types of cancer including:

  • Mouth
  • Esophagus
  • Throat
  • Liver
  • Breast

Alcohol abuse does not just affect the person who drinks. Women who drink alcohol while pregnant can cause dangerous harm to a developing fetus. Babies can be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a disease that can result in growth and behavioral problems. The CDC reports that although it is difficult to determine how many babies are born with FAS, studies have identified 0.2 to 1.5 infants with FAS for every 1,000 live births in certain areas of the United States. For more information about FAS and its dangerous consequences, visit the CDC website.

Treatment Approaches

There are several treatments that are effective in altering drinking patterns. Behavioral treatments such as counseling by a professional aim to identify and change the behaviors and environmental factors that lead the person to drink heavily. Working with the counselor, patients can set goals and work to avoid triggers.

There are currently three medications available that are approved to help people reduce drinking and prevent relapse. They can only be prescribed by a physician and are best used alongside another form of treatment.

Mutual-Support Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) use a 12-step program to combine professional counseling with peer support. Group members get rewards for reaching sober milestones and are allowed to remain anonymous.

Knowledge is power, take control of your addiction.
Learn more about alcohol treatment options


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View Sources Last Edited: June 27, 2016

Sources and Citations

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