While one night of hard drinking can give you a hangover, it probably won’t result in any serious long-term effects; accidents and injuries notwithstanding. However, for the chronic alcohol abuser, this night is just one in a series of many such nights, or mornings, or afternoons, over a period of years. It is this pattern of drinking behavior that makes for a serious cause for concern.
Chronic alcohol abusers are at high risk for a number of health conditions. One of the most prominent long term effects of alcohol is liver disease: hepatitis, cirrhosis and fatty liver being common manifestations of it. As the liver works overtime to oxidize alcohol, it reaches a point where it cannot function properly any longer. Often, a new liver is needed, and long-term alcoholics are usually not at the top of the transplant list. Many hospitals require six months of sobriety before they will even consider a surgery due to both the immediate health risks and the idea that the person may continue drinking and damage the new organ.
Since drinking can reduce the number of red blood cells in the body, another risk of chronic heavy drinking is anemia. Heavy drinking also constricts blood vessels. This has the potential to lead to clotting problems and/or high blood pressure that can trigger heart disease, seizures and stroke. It also weakens the immune system, inviting in diseases the body would normally fend off. The potential grows higher when drinking is coupled with the unhealthy diet and lifestyle that often accompanies alcoholism.
Chronic nerve damage can also occur because of long-term alcohol abuse, which is why some alcoholics get “the shakes” when they are going through withdrawal. This temporary symptom can become permanent in some cases. If it happens, it is known as essential tremor, and most commonly affects the limbs, head or speech.
Ever notice how people who are drunk seem dazed? That’s because the alcohol is doing a number on the sympathetic nervous system. Over time, the damaging effects can be permanent, causing short-term memory problems and even dementia.
Other long-term mental effects include mood swings, depression, anger, and delusional thinking. The problem with these effects is that you can run into a chicken-egg syndrome. It’s up to a discerning recovery support specialist to determine if these symptoms are caused by the alcoholism or if they were present before the drinking occurred and may have in fact contributed to it.
The bottom line is that once a person recognizes that he or she has a drinking problem, it’s necessary to address it immediately in a way that they deem acceptable and appropriate. Just as with other substance use disorders, some damage can be healed with a period of sobriety, and some can at least be curtailed from getting worse.
Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.