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 that 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:
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 depresses vital functions. This is a normal response to alcohol use, but at high levels, this depression can become dangerous. While the average adult can process about 8 grams of pure alcohol per hour, any excess will begin building up in their body. Due to this, 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.
Find out more about the signs & symptoms of an alcohol overdose.
Danger #2: Deadly Drug Interactions With Alcohol
Alcohol is also capable of many drug interactions which can amplify the effect of alcohol, but also the drug it is taken with. Even small amounts of alcohol can act in a synergistic way when combined with certain drugs to produce serious problems. Some drugs that alcohol can amplify include:
- Benzodiazepines: Such as Xanax or Valium, using these alongside alcohol can amplify the effect of alcohol, and vice versa, with only small amounts of both substances leading to total blackout, a massive increase in risk-taking behavior, and even death. Since benzodiazepines interact with the brain in a similar fashion as alcohol, the effects of each will compound each other strongly and quickly.
- Z-Drugs: Such as Ambien and Lunesta, these drugs act in a roughly similar way to benzodiazepines. The effects of mixing Z-drugs with alcohol will be similar to mixing benzodiazepines with alcohol.
- Opioids: Like oxycodone, heroin, and methadone. These drugs used alongside alcohol can greatly increase the risk of death, and this is usually a result of severe breathing depression.
- Cocaine: This drug can also produce dangerous interactions with alcohol, although the way this works is very different than the examples seen above. When cocaine and alcohol are used together, the liver will produce cocaethylene, a very toxic compound. Cocaethylene is somewhat similar to cocaine in effect, although it stays in the blood for 3 to 5 times 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 when compared to cocaine alone.
Above are some of the more common and dangerous drugs which interact with alcohol. There are however many more drugs capable of serious interactions with alcohol. Some of these may include:
- Antidepressants such as SSRIs
- Blood Pressure Medications
- Diabetes Medications
- Cholesterol Medications
- Muscle Relaxers
- Heart Medications
Danger #3: Long-Term Health Risks From Alcohol Abuse
Alcohol is known to cause a variety of health issues through prolonged drinking, and these risks rise the longer someone drinks alcohol. Organ damage and metabolic disorders are quite common among people who drink frequently. Chronic alcohol use can also increase the risk of certain cancers such as:
- Breast Cancer
- Colon / Rectal Cancer
- Liver Cancer
- Esophageal Cancer
- Pharynx / Larynx Cancer
Some of the more immediate risks of alcohol use include:
- Cirrhosis: Significant scarring and severely reduced function of the liver.
- Hepatic Steatosis: Buildup of fatty cells in the liver that 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 tissue damage; can lead to Type 2 Diabetes.
- Type 2 Diabetes: Insulin desensitization due to frequent 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 the 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, or weakness in the extremities due to nerve damage; can be chronic or even permanent.
- Alcoholic Dementia: A wide range of conditions fit under this umbrella term, but these often produce problems with perception, memory, and higher reasoning.
- Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome: A neurological disorder that 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 that forms naturally in alcoholic drinks during the fermentation process or during storage. It is found in most alcoholic drinks, but it is found in the highest quantities in distilled liquor and fruit brandies. It is a Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans) carcinogen and is known to cause tumors in animals on the lungs, liver, skin, mammary glands, and lymph nodes.
Alcohol has also 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. Fetal alcohol exposure is a major contributor to preventable birth defects in the United States and it is strongly advised to remain alcohol-free during pregnancy due to the clear and known risks.
Danger #4: Legal Consequences of Alcohol Use
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. Even if nobody is injured or killed, DUIs carry very serious legal penalties. While the sentences vary greatly between states, in most cases you can expect a suspension of a driver’s license, community service, a 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 required to 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 its widespread use 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 in 23% of cases.
Danger #5: Behavioral Risks With Alcohol Use
Alcohol use, due to the impression of inhibitions, leads to greater risk-taking behaviors and unsafe behavior in general. This could take the form of risky physical activity, unsafe sex, or it may encourage someone to do drugs that they would never do while sober. It is not uncommon for people who have been drinking to use a stimulant such as cocaine, thinking that it will help them “drive safer” when going home. This lowering of behavioral inhibitions can have a cascade effect in many other areas of someone’s life such as legal issues, health issues, social issues, or developing new addictions.
Many sexual issues such as infidelity, unprotected sex, multiple-partner sex, and indiscriminate sex occur more frequently 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 that 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.