Complications of Alcohol Abuse

Excessive drinking over a long period of time creates medical, psychological, and social problems. The amount and frequency of the drinking and overall health affect the degree to which complications develop in alcohol use disorders.

Medical Complications of Alcohol Abuse

Chronic alcohol abuse and dependence can damage all organ systems, including:

  • Blood-forming system—resulting in anemia (low red blood cell count) and easy bruising
  • Cardiovascular system—causing abnormal heart beat/heart rate, heart failure, high blood pressure (hypertension), and other conditions
  • Gastrointestinal (GI) tract—leading to esophageal varices, inflammation, or cancer of the esophagus; gastritis; increased risk of infectious diseases (e.g., tuberculosis); liver damage, hepatitis, liver cancer; low blood sugar; pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis; and ulcers
  • Nervous system—causing confusion, loss of coordination, increased risk for depression, nerve damage, psychosis, short-term memory problems, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, stroke, vision loss, and other problems

Some neurological complications are related to vitamin deficiencies. Blackouts, the inability to recall events that occurred while drinking, are common. Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, or permanent short-term memory loss, is a rare but possible result of severe vitamin B deficiency caused by chronic alcoholism.

Drinking alcohol during pregnancy may result in fetal alcohol syndrome (i.e., low birth weight, short length, small head size, mental retardation, and damage to muscles, including the heart).

Psychological Complications of Alcohol Abuse

Upwards of 44 percent of alcoholics have mental health disorders that were present before alcohol dependence. Mood disorders are the exception; it is common for alcoholics to develop mood disorders such as major depressive disorder after onset of dependence. Studies show a strong association between alcoholism and depression, and 25 percent of suicides involve alcohol.

Social Complications of Alcohol Abuse

In 2014, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that about 7.5 million children in the United States live with a parent with an alcohol use disorder. Alcoholism causes suffering in relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. Alcoholics have a higher rate of divorce and separation and of engaging in domestic violence and other types of violent and aggressive behavior. Missed work, poor job performance, and in some cases, on-the-job accidents are common. Legal problems are also common, such as citations for driving under the influence and/or traffic accidents.

Most disturbing, alcohol abuse kills. Estimates are as high as 150,000 deaths each year from alcohol use. According to the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV, more than one-half of all murderers and their victims are believed to have been intoxicated at the time of the murder. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that in 1997, over 16,000 fatalities from traffic accidents were attributed to drunk driving. There are also a number of alcohol-related deaths from acute alcohol poisoning and accidents, which are reported on college campuses with increasing frequency.

Publication Review By: Debra Emmite, M.D., Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 03 Apr 2001

Last Modified: 16 Apr 2014