While alcohol use is extremely common these days, it nonetheless poses a high risk to drinkers in a variety of ways. While it is rarely discussed openly, it is possible to overdose on alcohol. Likewise, many other drugs can increase this risk, or produce interactions which are dangerous or even fatal. There are also a series of health risks associated with prolonged or excessive alcohol use. Finally, the behavioral and legal risks of alcohol abuse are extremely serious and potentially life-altering.
Due to the wide range of dangers posed by alcohol use and addiction, we have compiled a detailed list of the top 5 dangers as follows:
Danger #1: Alcohol Overdose (Alcohol Poisoning)
While the body constantly metabolizes alcohol after it is ingested, if someone drinks too much too quickly they can run the risk of an alcohol overdose. Alcohol has a strong depressant effect on the body and is known to suppress basic life support functions in the body. This is a normal response to alcohol use, but in high levels of alcohol use this suppression can escalate to life-threatening levels. While the average adult can process about 8 grams of pure alcohol per hour, any excess will begin building up in their body. In this manner, someone can still be getting more intoxicated even after they have stopped drinking. If someone were to pass out while drinking, their body would continue to process the built-up alcohol and their BAC (blood alcohol concentration) would continue to rise. People who binge drink are at the greatest risk of an alcohol overdose.
- Loss of Responses (such as the gag reflex)
- Seizures (due to low blood sugar levels)
- Confusion or Delirium
- Slow or Labored Breathing (less that 8 breaths per minute)
- Paleness or Blue Tinted Skin (due to lack of blood flow and oxygen)
- Unconsciousness (with an inability to wake up)
- Death (several of the above complications can result in death or brain damage)
Danger #2: Deadly Drug Interactions With Alcohol
Alcohol is also capable of many drug interactions which can amplify not only the effect of alcohol itself, but also the drug it is taken with. In this manner, even small amounts of alcohol can act in a synergistic way when combined with certain drugs to produce serious problems. Some drugs which alcohol can amplify include:
- Benzodiazepines such as Alprazolam (Xanax), Clonazepam (Klonopin), and Diazepam (Valium): Benzodiazepines in particular can strongly intensify the effect of alcohol, and vice versa, with only small amounts of both leading to total blackout, massive increase in risk-taking behavior, and potentially death due to depression of vital functions. Since Benzodiazepines interact with the brain in a similar fashion as alcohol the effects of each will build upon one another rapidly.
- Z-Drugs such as Zolpidem (Ambien) and Eszopiclone (Lunesta): Z-Drugs act on some of the same GABA receptors as actual benzodiazepines. Because of this, the effects of synergy will be very similar to those experienced when mixing full fledged benzos with alcohol.
- Opioids such as Oxycodone, Morphine, Heroin, and Methadone: It has been proven that when opioids are used in tandem with alcohol, the elimination rates from the blood of are slowed down for both drugs leading to higher toxicities. Opioids and alcohol have a similar effect on depression of breathing, and in this way can dramatically increase the risk of death.
- Cocaine is also capable of interacting with alcohol, although the process and effects are different as those seen above. In the case of cocaine and alcohol use, the liver will produce cocaethylene. This substance has very similar psychoactive properties to cocaine, however its blood elimination half-life is 3 to 5 times as long as cocaine, meaning it stays in your body much longer. Cocaethylene has been linked to seizures, liver damage, and compromised immune system function as well as having an 18 to 25 times higher risk of immediate death in humans.
- Antidepressants such as SSRIs
- Blood Pressure Medications
- Diabetes Medications
- Cholesterol Medications
- Muscle Relaxers
- Heart Medications
Danger #3: Long Term Health Risks From Alcohol Abuse
The toxicity of alcohol is known to cause a variety of health issues and these risks rise the longer someone drinks alcohol. Organ damage and metabolic disorders are unfortunately quite common among alcoholics, or even regular drinkers who may no be alcoholics. Some of the risks which are increased through alcohol use include a variety of cancers such as:
- Breast Cancer
- Colon / Rectal Cancer
- Liver Cancer
- Esophageal Cancer
- Pharynx / Larynx Cancer
Some of the more immediately dangerous risk factors are for issues such as:
- Cirrhosis: Significant scarring and severely reduced function of the liver due to alcohol-induced damage.
- Hepatic Steatosis: Buildup of fatty cells in your liver due to alcoholism, can cause liver swelling and reduced function.
- Alcoholic Hepatitis: Inflammation of the liver which can cause jaundice, ascites, fever, confusion, and fatigue.
- Chronic Pancreatitis: Inflammation of the pancreas due to alcohol-induced tissue damage; can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.
- Type 2 Diabetes: Insulin desensitization due to alcohol-induced blood sugar fluctuations and pancreas damage.
- Cardiomyopathy: Toughening, weakening, and distention of the heart muscles which impedes blood flow to the rest of the body. This can lead to organ damage elsewhere in the body and can even progress to congestive heart failure.
- Atrial Fibrillation: Irregular heartbeat which can cause low blood pressure, fatigue, blood clots, fluid buildup in extremities, and can lead to other heart conditions or stroke.
- Alcohol-Induced Hypertension: High blood pressure which can lead to heart attack, stroke, or aneurysm as well as kidney problems, vision loss, metabolic syndrome, memory problems and vascular dementia.
- Ischemic or Hemorrhagic Stroke: Lack of blood flow to the brain or bleeding in the brain resulting in brain damage or death.
- Peripheral Neuropathy: Loss of sensation, a feeling of pain, and weakness typically in the extremities due to alcohol-induced nerve damage; can be chronic or even lifelong.
- Alcoholic Dementia: A wide range of conditions fit under this umbrella term, but most present symptoms such as impairment of strategic or “big picture” thinking, judgement, and intricate planning.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: A neurological disorder which is an intense and life changing form of alcoholic dementia.
Alcoholic drinks are also known to contain contaminants. Ethyl Carbamate, also known as urethane, is a common contaminant which forms naturally in alcoholic drinks during the fermentation process or during storage. It is found in most alcoholic drinks, but in the highest quantities in distilled liquor and fruit brandies. It is a Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans) carcinogen¹ and known to cause tumors in animal studies such as tumors of the lungs, liver, skin, mammary glands, and lymph nodes.
Aside from disrupting an adults body alcohol has been proven to cause a wide variety of birth defects, collectively referred to as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Drinking while pregnant can have numerous effects on the fetus, some of which include: distinct facial features, low birth weight, microcephaly (low brain volume and skull deformation), lower number of neurons, and/or improperly functioning neurons. With Fetal Alcohol Syndrome being the leading preventable birth defect in the United States, it is strongly advised to remain alcohol free during pregnancy.
Danger #4: Legal Consequences of Alcohol Use
Driving Under the Influence (DUI) is considered operating a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.08% or higher. In the United States today, every 50 minutes someone is killed in a car accident where at least one driver is under the influence of alcohol. Of the 51,914 people killed in car accidents in 2016 about 19% (9,885 fatalities) involved a driver having a BAC of 0.08% or greater. First or second offense DUI is typically a misdemeanor, provided you did not hit something or someone but still usually requires jail time. This is most often a few hours or days at most, but will escalate with each subsequent offense. Still, DUIs carry very serious penalties. While the sentences vary greatly between states, in most cases you can expect suspension of drivers license (you may be eligible for a hardship permit for work, doctor, etc.), community service, the requirement to attend a DUI class, and probation. The initial fine, plus any probation charges will often end up being several thousand dollars. Repeat offenders may be additionally ordered to attend DUI/Drug Court, get an ignition interlock device installed in their car, wear a BAC ankle monitor, and attend recovery group meetings multiple times per week.
Aside from driving offenses, alcohol is involved in a significant percentage of violent crimes, in part due to it’s societal prevalence and ease of access as well as alcohol’s effect on lowering inhibitions. A report by the National Crime Victimization Survey found that of domestic abuse crimes, 51% involved the perpetrator being under the influence of alcohol. For simple assault alcohol was involved in 65% of incidents, and for aggravated assault it was involved 23% of the time.
Danger #5: Behavioral Risks With Alcohol Use
Alcohol has a strong and proven effect on behavior in general, with alcohol use leading to greater risk-taking and unsafe behavior in general. This could take the form of risky physical activity, unsafe sex, and in particular, it may lead someone to do drugs they would never do while sober. This lowering of behavioral inhibitions can have a cascade effect in many other areas of a drinkers life, such as legal issues, health issues, or developing new addictions.
Often times when drinking heavily, alcoholics will use stimulants to be able to “drive safer” when leaving the bar. Stimulants are known to increase susceptibility to addictive behavior, and can produce deep neurological changes when used over an extended period of time. Many sexual issues such as infidelity, unprotected sex, multiple partner sex, and indiscriminate sex are also increased when alcohol is involved. This can drastically increase the risk of STDs and damaged relationships. Finally, when under the influence of alcohol, people are much more likely to engage in physically dangerous activities such as fighting, stunts, or trying to impress people in ways which are beyond their normal ability to perform. This raises the risk of serious or even fatal physical injury. The behavioral effects of alcohol increase the risks for all of the previously mentioned dangers, as well as introducing some unique risks.
- Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment: Korsakoff’s Syndrome – A Critical Review
- Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul: Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
- Journal of Addictive Diseases: Cocaethylene Toxicity