Effects of Alcohol Addiction & Prolonged Alcohol Abuse On Your Health

Is drinking alcohol occasionally bad for you?

While the occasional alcoholic beverage is unlikely to be harmful to your health, excessive drinking can significantly affect your body and wellbeing.

What does it mean to drink in moderation?

The standard definition of “moderate drinking” is seven to 14 units of alcohol per week or about six pints of average-strength beer or seven glasses of wine. According to UK recommendations, limiting weekly alcohol consumption to no more than 14 units will minimise health risks.

There are some people who should not drink any alcohol, including those who are:

  • Younger than age 21.
  • Pregnant or may be pregnant.
  • Driving, planning to drive, or participating in other activities requiring skill, coordination, and alertness.
  • Taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol.
  • Suffering from certain medical conditions.
  • Recovering from alcoholism or are unable to control the amount they drink.

What is an alcohol unit?

A unit of alcohol is 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol, which is about:

  • half a pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%)
  • a single small shot measure (25ml) of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)

A small glass (125ml, ABV 12%) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol.

What is considered alcohol abuse?

You are abusing alcohol when:

  • You drink 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion (for women).
  • You drink more than 14 drinks per week or more than 4 drinks per occasion (for men).
  • You have more than 7 drinks per week or more than 3 drinks per occasion (for men and women older than 65).

Understanding The Impact of Alcohol on Your Health

Alcohol is a psychoactive substance with dependence-producing properties that has been widely used in many cultures for centuries. The harmful use of alcohol causes a high burden of disease and has significant social and economic consequences.

The harmful use of alcohol can also result in harm to other people, such as family members, friends, co-workers and strangers.

Alcohol consumption is a causal factor in more than 200 diseases, injuries and other health conditions. Drinking alcohol is associated with a risk of developing health problems such as mental and behavioural disorders, including alcohol dependence, and major non-communicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, some cancers and cardiovascular diseases.

A significant proportion of the disease burden attributable to alcohol consumption arises from unintentional and intentional injuries, including those due to road traffic crashes, violence, and suicide. Fatal alcohol-related injuries tend to occur in relatively younger age groups.

A causal relationship has been established between harmful drinking and the incidence or outcomes of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.

Alcohol consumption by an expectant mother may cause fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and pre-term birth complications.

Key facts

  • The harmful use of alcohol is a causal factor in more than 200 disease and injury conditions.
  • Worldwide, 3 million deaths every year result from the harmful use of alcohol. This represents 5.3% of all deaths.
  • Overall, 5.1% of the global burden of disease and injury is attributable to alcohol, as measured in disability-adjusted life years (DALYs).
  • Beyond health consequences, the harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society at large.
  • Alcohol consumption causes death and disability relatively early in life. In people aged 20–39 years, approximately 13.5% of total deaths are attributable to alcohol.
  • There is a causal relationship between harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioural disorders, other non-communicable conditions and injuries.

Short-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse

The risk of numerous dangerous health conditions rises immediately as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. These are the most common side effects of binge drinking and include the following:

  • injuries caused by falls, drownings, car accidents, and burns.
  • Violence, such as murder, suicide, sexual assault, and violence against intimate partners.
  • High blood alcohol levels can cause alcohol poisoning, and that can lead to a medical emergency.
  • Risky sexual practises, such as having sex without protection or with several partners. Unwanted pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV, may occur from these actions.
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) or stillbirth and miscarriage in pregnant women.

Long-Term Health Risks of Alcohol Abuse

Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to the development of chronic diseases and other major problems over time, including:

  • High blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, and digestive problems.
  • Cancer of the breast, mouth, throat, oesophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum.
  • Weakening of the immune system increases the chances of getting sick.
  • Learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance.
  • Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety.
  • Social problems, including family problems, job-related problems, and unemployment.
  • Alcohol use disorders, or alcohol dependence.

By not drinking too much, you can reduce the risk of these short- and long-term health risks.

How alcohol affects your health

Wine, beer, spirits, and liqueurs are all made with alcohol. For those who consume excessive amounts of alcohol, it is a legal sedative substance that can lead to addiction or dependency. Drinking alcohol can alter behaviour. Through violence, criminality, accidents, and drunk driving, alcohol addiction hurts your health as well as relationships, society, and the law.

Drinking too much alcohol

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

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

Binge drinking

Binge drinking means drinking too much alcohol in a brief time. A binge for a man is when he consumes more than eight units of alcohol in one sitting. For a woman, it’s more than six units on one occasion.

You could experience long-term or permanent health issues if you binge drink. Binge drinking can lead to:

  • blackouts
  • memory loss
  • anxiety
  • irregular heartbeat


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

Drinking problems

You may have a drinking problem, if your drinking is as follows:

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

Depending on how frequently and how they drink, both young and old people may develop a drinking problem.

You can have a drinking problem without being addicted to alcohol, but if you don’t limit its influence on your life, you might develop an addiction.

Alcoholism (i.e. Alcohol Addiction, Alcohol Use Disorder)

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.

Brain damage

Alcohol can damage your brain. Brain damage affects your:

  • behaviour
  • memory
  • ability to learn

Because young people’s brains are still developing, alcohol is highly damaging to them. Regular heavy drinkers run the danger of:

  • permanent brain damage
  • mental health problems
  • alcoholism


After smoking, alcohol use is the second largest cancer risk factor. The following conditions are more likely to develop in you if you frequently consume more alcohol than the weekly limits:

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

Breast cancer

The risk of breast cancer in women can rise when they drink. The more you drink, the greater the risk. The female sex hormone oestrogen is one of the hormones whose levels are altered by alcohol consumption.

Oestrogen is necessary for healthy female reproductive organ development and functioning. However, it might also stimulate the spread of breast cancer.

Heart and circulation

High blood pressure brought on by alcohol raises your risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

Additionally, alcohol damages heart muscles, which can have an impact on the liver, brain, lungs, and other bodily systems as well as lead to heart failure.

An irregular heartbeat can result from binge drinking and heavy drinking over extended periods of time. Sudden death is associated with this condition.


You are more likely to develop lung infections like pneumonia if you drink alcohol frequently. A collapsing lung is another possibility.

If alcohol causes someone to vomit, they risk choking if the vomit enters their lungs.


If you consume too much alcohol, fat deposits form in your liver. As a result, the liver may become inflamed and develop alcoholic hepatitis, which can be fatal and lead to liver failure.

Alcoholism can permanently scar and harm the liver, leading to cirrhosis of the liver. Due to this, liver cancer risk is increased.

It takes a woman’s liver longer to process alcohol and longer to heal after damage.


Drinking too much can lead to:

  • stomach ulcers
  • internal bleeding

Inflammation of the stomach caused by alcohol is known as gastritis. This can reduce your ability to absorb vitamins from meals and raise your risk of developing cancer.


The pancreas may become inflamed after heavy or prolonged drinking. It is a very painful condition where a drinker experiences:

A drinker can die from this condition.


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.


Your chance of developing high blood pressure can increase if you drink heavily. Chronic renal disease is a result of this.


Both men and women who drink regularly may experience infertility. Impotence can also affect men.

The growth of your unborn child may be harmed if you consume alcohol while pregnant. Alcohol abuse can also lead to stillbirth and miscarriage in pregnant women or foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs).


Your body’s capacity to absorb calcium is reduced by alcohol abuse. Your bones will weaken and thin if you don’t get enough calcium.

Weight gain

Regular alcohol consumption may cause weight gain. Alcoholic beverages have a lot of calories because they contain sugar and carbohydrates. Alcohol has no nutritional value – hence the calories are useless.

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


Your body and skin become dehydrated through alcohol consumption. Additionally, it expands blood vessels, giving your skin a reddish or blotchy appearance.

Sexual health

Your likelihood of contracting a STI like chlamydia, HIV, or hepatitis may rise as a result of being less likely to use a condom. An unintended pregnancy may also result from it. You become irrational and lose your judgement when you binge drink.

Mental health

Alcohol is linked to mental health problems, including:

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

Drinking too much can disrupt normal sleeping patterns and cause:

This can make you feel stressed and anxious.

Factors affecting alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm

At both the individual and societal levels, a number of variables have been found to influence both the patterns and levels of alcohol consumption as well as the severity of alcohol-related disorders in populations.

Level of economic development, culture, social norms, accessibility to alcohol, and the introduction and enforcement of alcohol legislation are all societal factors. Poorer societies are more likely to experience negative health effects and social harm from a given level and pattern of drinking.

Alcohol drinking causes more health and societal problems for less wealthy people than for more wealthy people. Age, gender, familial situation, and socioeconomic level are all personal aspects. The likelihood that a person may experience alcohol-related problems as a result of alcohol usage increases with their number of vulnerabilities, even though there is no particular risk factor that is dominant.

The total amount of alcohol consumed and drinking habits, particularly those linked to heavy drinking episodes, play a significant role in how alcohol intake affects chronic and acute health consequences.

Alcohol-related harm is frequently brought on by the circumstances surrounding drinking, particularly when alcohol intoxication is involved. Alcohol consumption can have an impact not only on the incidence of diseases, injuries and other health conditions but also on their outcomes and how these evolve over time.

Alcohol-related mortality and morbidity, as well as alcohol intake patterns and levels, fluctuate according to gender. Men account for 7.7% of all deaths worldwide due to alcohol use, compared to women, who account for 2.6% of all deaths. Male drinkers used 19.4 litres of pure alcohol on average per person in 2016, whereas female drinkers consumed 7.0 litres on average.

Reducing the burden from harmful use of alcohol

When governments create and put into place appropriate policies, the health, safety, and socioeconomic issues related to alcohol can be reduced.

Policy-makers are encouraged to take action on strategies that have shown to be effective and cost-effective. These consist of:

  • regulating the marketing of alcoholic beverages (in particular to younger people);
  • regulating and restricting the availability of alcohol;
  • enacting appropriate drink-driving policies;
  • reducing demand through taxation and pricing mechanisms;
  • raising awareness of the health and social problems for individuals and society at large caused by the harmful use of alcohol;
  • ensuring support for effective alcohol policies;
  • providing accessible and affordable treatment for people with alcohol-use disorders;
  • implementing screening and brief intervention programmes in health services for hazardous and harmful drinking.

Getting Help for Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

The first significant step in getting help is realising that you have an alcohol problem.

You may need help if any of the following applies to you:

  • You frequently feel the need to drink
  • You experience problems as a result of your drinking
  • Others caution you about how much alcohol you’re consuming.
  • You believe that your drinking is harming you.

A GP is a fantastic place to start. Be as accurate and truthful as you can when describing how much you drink and any issues it might be causing you. You can also call our addictions experts on 0800 999 1083 for free, confidential help and to discuss treatment options.

It will be challenging to completely limit your drinking if you have developed an alcohol dependence.

As a result, you’ll probably need support to either reduce or stop drinking altogether and also some plans to keep the changes you make thereafter.

The GP might advise you to consider various assessment and assistance options, including those provided by community alcohol services in your area.

Inquire if there are any free local support groups or other types of alcohol counselling that would be suitable for you.

Don’t stop drinking abruptly without consulting a doctor o specialist

Stopping drinking abruptly overnight could be detrimental if you have developed physical dependence and need to completely stop.

To do this safely, you should get guidance regarding both this and any necessary medications.

The following list of withdrawal symptoms indicate you may require medication:

Staying healthy and in control

The majority of people will require some assistance or a long-term strategy to maintain control or be fully alcohol-free after cutting back or stopping their drinking.

Getting the appropriate help will be essential to keep control in the future. It is frequently insufficient to rely just on family, friends, or caregivers for this.

Find out what longer-term support is offered in your area by speaking with a doctor or one of our addiction specialists. We can offer guidance and refer you to an alcohol rehabilitation programme or local support group.

Most places have access to self-help or mutual aid groups (like AA or SMART Recovery groups).

Useful contacts for alcohol problems

  • Drinkline is the national alcohol helpline. You can call this free hotline in complete confidentiality if you have concerns about your own or another person’s drinking. Call 0300 123 1110 (weekdays 9 am to 8 pm, weekends 11 am to 4 pm).
  • Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a free self-help group. Its “12 step” programme involves getting sober with the help of regular support groups.
  • Al-Anon Family Groups provide support and understanding to the family and friends of problem drinkers, whether or not they are still drinking. 12- to 17-year-olds who are impacted by the drinking of another person, typically a parent can attend Alateen, a division of Al-Anon.
  • Adfam is a national charity working with families affected by drugs and alcohol. Adfam operates an online message board and a database of local support groups.
  • The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) provides children of alcoholic parents and people worried about their welfare with a free, confidential phone and email helpline. To reach the Nacoa helpline, dial 0800 358 3456.
  • SMART Recovery groups help people decide whether they have a problem, build up their motivation to change, and offer a set of proven tools and techniques to support recovery.

Alcohol Addiction

Alcoholism Treatment Options

Alcoholism treatment programmes can help an individual achieve long-term sobriety and achieve a full recovery. Find out more about alcohol rehab centre options by calling Compare Rehab UK on 0800 999 1083 today.

Alcohol detoxification

Most people receive support to stop drinking and recovery support in the community.

If you need medicine to help you stop drinking, it can often be taken at home or when attending a local service daily.

But some people will need a short stay in a 24-hour medically supported unit so they can receive safe treatment for their withdrawal symptoms or other problems.

Depending on your situation and the assessed medical need, this may be in an NHS inpatient unit or a medically supported residential service.

Intensive rehabilitation

Some people are assessed as requiring intensive rehabilitation and recovery support for a period after they stop drinking completely. This can either be through attending an intensive support programme in their local community or a residential rehabilitation facility.

People with medium to high levels of alcohol dependence and those who have already tried and failed at other forms of therapy are typically the only ones who qualify for this type of specialised care via the NHS.

Local authorities provide services for alcohol treatment. A second assessment stage may be required to determine your eligibility for intensive residential rehabilitation.

It’s also possible to pay for residential rehabilitation privately. Medical insurance companies may fund this for a limited time.

Ready To Get Help And Take Control Of Your Life? Call us on 0800 999 1083 for confidential help and to discuss treatment options.

Last Edited: September 19th, 2022
Clinically Reviewed: July 13, 2022
Clinical Reviewer


BACP accredited psychotherapist with 16 years experience working in mental health specialising in psychodynamic person-centred therapies treating those with a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, OCD and Addiction.