Complications of Chronic Alcohol Abuse

Man by the lake

Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the U.S. Almost 15 percent of Americans is dependent on alcohol. Alcohol causes estimated 88,000 fatalities every year, making it the fourth leading preventable cause of death in U.S.

Normal amounts of alcohol are quickly absorbed and majority of ethanol is metabolized in the liver. However, individuals who chronically abuse alcohol metabolize alcohol in a different manner: they metabolize alcohol at a higher rate than the non-drinkers.

They also attain a tolerance as longer someone has been drinking, they will need all the more alcohol to drink to become functionally impaired.

Medical Complications of Alcohol Abuse

Alcoholism leads to significant long-term medical complications that few people are aware of. When abused chronically, alcohol affects virtually every organ system. Such excessive alcohol use further exacerbates existing medical conditions, profoundly increasing the risk of developing many diseases, and shortens life expectancy by almost a decade.

Nervous system: Excessive drinking can take a toll on the nervous system. Chronic alcohol abuse often results in frequent blackouts, essentially categorized as episodes of antegrade amnesia. Sleep patterns of alcohol abusers are disrupted and pose risks for sleep disorders, which is further related to impending depression and heart diseases.

Five to 15 percent of alcohol-dependent individuals are susceptible to peripheral neuropathy that impairs sensation, movement or organs, depending on the nerve affected. An estimated 1 percent of chronic alcohol abusers will show clinical signs of degeneration of cells or atrophy, and 50 percent will have atrophy as detected by a CT or MRI scan.

Gastrointestinal system: Alcohol is highly detrimental to the gastric mucosa (lining of stomach walls), and is a common cause of hemorrhagic gastritis, where the stomach lining is inflamed.
Alcoholics are at a higher risk than the general population for developing Mallory-Weiss tears in the lining and development of abnormal veins in the esophagus, which may ultimately cause bleeding.

Around 30 percent of all cases of acute pancreatitis, inflammation of the pancreas, are a result of alcohol abuse, and an estimated 70 to 80 percent of all cases of chronic pancreatitis are caused by alcohol use disorders.

Liver: Chronic alcohol consumption is the second highest cause of cirrhosis. It is the gradual destruction and replacement of healthy, functioning tissue in the liver with scarring and fibrosis.

Almost 30 percent of chronic alcohol abusers are likely to develop alcoholic cirrhosis, the most advanced form of liver disease.

These patients will be suffering from jaundice, ascites, bleeding disorders, iciteral sclera, and are highly susceptible to esophageal varices and/or hepatic encephalopathy, a resulting loss of brain function.

In 2013, 72,559 liver disease deaths occurred. Almost 45.8 percent of these deaths involved alcohol.

Man lying in the grass recovering from Alcohol AbuseHeart: Chronic drinkers are twice more likely to be harmed by atrial fibrillation than non-drinkers. This refers to an irregular, unusually rapid heart rate causing poor blood flow.

Chronic abuse also increases the risk of developing coronary artery disease by six times.

Excessive use of alcohol abuse also increases the risk of hypertension. Cardiomegaly (unusual heart enlargement) and cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle) are common repercussions of heavy drinking.

Hematopoietic: Alcohol has multiple pathologic effects on hematopoiesis, the formation of blood cellular components. Chronic, heavy drinking inhibits the production of white blood cells and influence their function, inducing anemia.

Metabolism: Heavy drinking exacerbates the risk of developing non- insulin dependent/type 2 diabetes. Metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions including increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and abnormal cholesterol, is more common among heavy drinkers.

Excessive drinkers are often typically malnourished. Alcohol also rapidly burns up vitamin B1 (thiamine) that holds dire consequences for the alcoholic’s nervous system.

Eye problems: Heavy drinking can result in an eventual involuntary rapid eye movement (nystagmus) alongside weakness and paralysis of eye muscles due to a deficiency of vitamin B-1 (thiamine). A thiamine deficiency can also cause brain changes, such as irreversible dementia, if not treated on time.

Bone damage: Alcohol may interfere with the production of new bone. Research shows that chronic alcohol abuse, especially in adolescence, can drastically affect bone health and increase risk of developing osteoporosis (thinning of bones) and fractures in later age.

Alcohol can also lead to deterioration of bone marrow, inhibiting the production of blood cells and ultimately, a low platelet count. This can cause bruising and bleeding.

Weakened immune system: Excessive alcohol use can lead to deficiencies in the immune system, exacerbating vulnerability to various diseases, especially pneumonia.

Increased risk of cancer: Long-term chronic alcohol abuse has been linked to significantly greater susceptibility to many cancers, including mouth, throat, liver, colon and breast cancer. Even moderate drinking has been known to exacerbate the risk of breast cancer.

Safety Complications

Excessive drinking can hinder the user’s thought process and impair judgment skills to a point where inhibitions are significantly lowered and dangerous behaviors may be initiated. This typically involves driving under influence, which accounted for 29 percent of the total vehicle traffic fatalities in 2015.

Woman using an app with sunsetAbusing alcohol may also lead to substance abuse involving drugs or other substances as well. Due to lowered inhibitions, the individual might more easily commit crime or be a victim to one. 696,000 students, aged 18 to 24, are assaulted by another student who had been drinking.

They are also more likely to engage in risky sexual endeavors or be victim to sexual assaults. 97,000 students, aged 18 to 24, reported experiencing alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

Chronic alcohol abuse is also associated with increased risk of attempted or completed suicide.

Social Complications

Relationship problems are more common among alcoholics as their drinking exerts a toll on their family members and partners as well. Alcoholics may act rashly, without consideration for others or may complete isolate loved ones all together.

More than 10 percent of U.S. children live with a parent with alcohol problems, according to a 2012 study. This hinders their healthy growth and development, safety and well-being.

Alcohol abuse disorder creates problems at work and school, essentially characterized by poor performance, fluctuating attendance and irresponsible behaviors. Consequently, legal problems may emerge with employment or finances.

If your alcohol consumption is causing problems with your health, social relationships, work or school and general well-being, it may be time to seek help with a treatment program specialized in treating alcoholism.

Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on May 25, 2017.
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on May 7, 2017
Published on

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.