Alcohol is among the most common types of legal drugs found on the street. It can be obtained anywhere and legally sold to anyone who is of the legal drinking age, which varies from state to state — 18 in some states, and 21 in others.
Alcoholic beverages are made from alcohol commonly known as ethanol, a colorless, volatile liquid with a mild odor. Made from fermented grains, fruits, or vegetables, it is the most widely used depressant in the world.
Alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream where it affects the central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord), which controls virtually all of the body’s functions.
The average alcoholic beverage contains 12 grams of pure ethanol — the approximate amount found in one 12 ounce beer, one 5 ounce glass of wine, and one 1.5 ounce “shot” of hard liquor such as bourbon. It takes the average drinker’s body one hour to metabolize one drink. As the amount of alcohol consumed exceeds the body’s ability to metabolize it, the user’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) increases and the drinker begins to feel the effects of alcohol intoxication.
Effects of Using Alcohol
The effects of drinking depend on a variety of factors, including the:
- Amount of alcohol consumed
- Time taken to consume it
- Individual’s gender, weight, body size, and percentage of body fat
- Amount of food in the stomach
- Use of medications, including non-prescription drugs
- Mindset of the individual at the time of consumption
- Setting in which the drinking takes place
Mixing alcohol with other drugs can drastically increase the damaging effects of drinking. For example, combining alcohol with narcotics such as heroin or methadone can cause slowed breathing, heart attack, and death. For some, even the combination of alcohol and aspirin can be extremely dangerous.
The short-term effects of drinking alcohol can cause numerous adverse effects on the user, such as:
- Slowed reaction times and reflexes
- Poor motor coordination
- Blurred vision
- Slurred speech
- Lowered inhibitions and increase in risk behavior
- Lowered reasoning ability, impaired judgment
- Memory loss
- Confusion, anxiety, restlessness
- Slowed heart rate, reduced blood pressure
- Slowed breathing rate
- Heavy Sweating
- Nausea and vomiting
- Death from respiratory arrest
A person who consistently uses alcohol over a period of time will develop a tolerance to the effects of drinking; that is, it takes progressively more alcohol to achieve the same effects. Over time, that person may grow dependent on alcohol, and in some cases this can lead to a vicious cycle of addiction.
Over time, heavy drinking can cause permanent damage to the user’s body and brain. Several factors affect the severity and extent of this damage, including the drinker’s age and gender as well as the duration and extent of abuse.
The physical damage caused by sustained alcohol abuse includes:
- Liver damage
- Accumulation of fat in the liver
- Cirrhosis – heavy scarring of the liver prevents blood flow; usually fatal
- Alcoholic hepatitis – swelling of liver cells, causing blockage; sometimes fatal
- Liver cancer
- Heart damage
- High blood pressure
- Coronary disease – narrowing of the arteries, leading to heart attack or death
- Enlarged heart
- Irregular heartbeat, which can lead to heart attack or death
- Decreased blood flow to the arms and legs
- Stroke – blocked blood flow to the brain
- Brain Damage
- Lowered cognitive abilities
- Destruction of brain cells, producing brain deterioration and atrophy
- Mental disorders – increased aggression, antisocial behavior, depression, anxiety
- Damage to sense of balance, causing more accidental injuries
- Bone Damage
- Bone growth that normally takes place in teenage years is stunted
- Osteoporosis – severe back pain, spine deformity, increased risk of fractures
- Pancreas Damage
- Pancreatitis – inflammation of the pancreas, causing abnormal pain, weight loss, and sometimes death
- Alcoholism increases a person’s chances of developing a variety of cancers of the pancreas, liver, breasts, colon, rectum, mouth, pharynx, and esophagus
- Sexual Problems
- Reduced sperm count and mobility, as well as sperm abnormality
- Menstrual difficulties irregular/absent cycles, and decreased fertility
- Early menopause
- Birth Defects
Women are more vulnerable than men to the negative effects of drinking because there is a notable difference in the way male and female bodies metabolize alcohol. Women have less total dehydrogenase – the stomach enzyme involved in metabolizing alcohol. As a result, the female body takes longer to break down alcohol.
The fluctuations in hormone levels that women experience during the menstrual cycle can make a woman more susceptible to the effects of drinking. In addition, because alcohol increases estrogen levels, birth control pills or other medications containing estrogen can increase intoxication.
Two-thirds of alcoholics are men; however, the negative effects of heavy drinking are more severe for women. Female alcoholics are more likely to suffer alcohol-related damages and diseases than alcoholic men are. Women are more vulnerable than men are to the negative effects of drinking. Women have less total body water and less alcohol dehydrogenase – the stomach enzyme involved in metabolizing alcohol. As a result, the female body takes longer to break down alcohol. In addition, the fluctuations in hormone levels that women experience during the menstrual cycle can make a woman more susceptible to the effects of drinking. And because alcohol increases estrogen levels, birth control pills or other medications containing estrogen can increase intoxication.
Drinking any alcohol during pregnancy can cause permanent, severe damage, by putting the child at risk for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Alcoholism Warning Signs
Several indicators can signify a budding alcohol problem. The University of Maryland Health Center lists ten warning signs of problematic drinking:
- Getting drunk repeatedly
- Continuing to drink when others have called it quits
- Comments and attitudes of peers indicating concern on their part for your drinking
- Drinking due to a compelling need for alcohol when lonely, depressed, and anxious, etc.
- Experiencing blackouts
- Feeling more comfortable under the influence of alcohol than when sober
- Increasing tolerance and decreased hangover symptoms
- Out-of-character behavior
- Extraordinary amount of mints, gum, mouthwash, and even onion and garlic
- Alcohol detected on breath
- Bright, shinning eyes
- Hidden beer cans, or bottles of alcohol throughout the house
- Slurred speech
- Talking nonsense
- Late sleeping
Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
Not everyone who stops drinking experiences withdrawal symptoms, but most people who have been drinking for a long period of time, or drinking frequently, or drink heavily when they do drink, will experience some form of withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking suddenly.
There is no way to predict how any individual will respond to quitting. If you plan to stop drinking and you have been drinking for years, or if you drink heavily when you do drink, or even if you drink moderately but frequently, you should consult a medical professional before going “cold turkey.”
Symptoms of Withdrawal from Alcohol include:
Mild to moderate psychological symptoms
- Feeling of jumpiness or nervousness
- Feeling of shakiness
- Irritability or easily excited
- Emotional volatility, rapid emotional changes
- Difficulty with thinking clearly
- Bad dreams
Mild to moderate physical symptoms:
- Headache – general, pulsating
- Sweating, especially the palms of the hands or the face
- Loss of appetite
- Insomnia, sleeping difficulty
- Rapid heart rate (palpitations)
- Eyes, pupils different size (enlarged, dilated pupils)
- Skin clammy
- Abnormal movements
- Tremor of the hands
- Involuntary, abnormal movements of the eyelids
- A state of confusion and hallucinations (visual) – known as delirium tremens
- “Black outs” – when the person forgets what happened during the drinking episode