It’s Time to Finally Talk About Alcohol, the Quiet Killer
April 5, 2019
Both the media and the White House have given a lot of recent attention to what some are calling the “opioid crisis.” While it’s certainly true that opioid addiction is a grueling, highly stigmatized, and under-treated medical condition, the amount of attention it has gotten versus other types of addiction has led to a general misconception that is the most prevalent addiction-related problem Americans are facing today. But the numbers tell a much different story. Of the more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2017, 47,6000 were attributed to opioids. Surprisingly, one substance doesn’t even make that list at all: alcohol. Alcohol-related deaths are counted separately from other substances. It might surprise you to learn that, in fact, they exceed deaths from all other substances. With a yearly death toll of 88,000, alcohol not only accounts for more fatalities than opioids, but also all other drugs combined. Because it has been legal in the United States for decades, alcohol doesn’t get the same attention as illegal drugs—but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.
Short-Term Health Effects of Alcohol
Like nearly any euphoria-producing substance, it is possible to safely consume alcohol in moderation. However, it can pose both long-term and short-term health problems for those who develop an alcohol use disorder and/or find themselves unable to moderate their use.
If you’ve ever had a hangover—that nasty constellation of headaches, stomach upset, and lethargy the day after drinking—then you’ve experienced one of the short-term side effects of alcohol consumption. The effects of the average hangover are short-lived and can usually be alleviated with food, water, and an over-the-counter pain reliever. But there are more serious short-term effects that can result from overconsumption of alcohol.
Alcohol poisoning is a common but life-threatening complication that results from drinking too much at once. When a person drinks more alcohol than her liver can metabolize, it begins to build up in her blood. Initially, this shows up as drunkenness. But what begins as a night out partying can become seriously dangerous if you don’t watch out. Dizziness and vomiting are warning signs of serious alcohol poisoning. If you keep drinking after this point, you put yourself at risk of seizures, coma, and death. And no, this isn’t some wild, unlikely health outcome parents hawk at teens to scare them away from their wine cabinets. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately six people die in the United States each day as the result of alcohol poisoning.
A less common but equally serious adverse health-effect is alcohol-induce hyponatremia. Hyponatremia is a condition characterized by dangerously low sodium levels, and can lead to seizures, coma, brain damage, and death. Some literature suggests that long-term alcohol consumption can cause this condition, but it is also possible to induce through short-term over-consumption, usually of beer. Referred to as beer-induced potomania, this condition occurs when a person drinks several beers with little to no break, and little to no food consumption. It is the alcohol-induced version of water intoxication, a rare medical event, usually attributed to athletes, in which sodium levels drop drastically due to rapid over-consumption of water.
Another short-term adversity attributed to alcohol is impaired motor-skills, which can lead to automobile accidents if someone attempts to drive while under the influence. There is also some literature that suggests alcohol may contribute to violent behavior in some cases.
Acute overdose is a leading cause of death when it comes to drugs like opioids and amphetamines. But with alcohol, long-term ailments contribute to a good chunk of those 88,000 annual deaths. Of all the serious, long-term health problems caused by alcohol, the most well-known is liver damage. Alcohol is processed through the liver, so when you drink too much for a long time, your liver gets strained. This can manifest as scarring of the liver, known as cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is serious and life-threatening, but treatable. The most important step toward recouping from liver cirrhosis is to stop drinking right away. If you have a serious alcohol use disorder, that could mean rehab or hospitalization. Other liver-related complications that can result from long-term drinking include liver cancer and fatty liver disease.
Long-term, recurring use of alcohol can also lead to brain changes. Observable mental effects include memory loss and problems with thinking. Mental illnesses like depression and mood disorders can become exacerbated by the neurochemical flux caused by drinking repeatedly. Another of these brain changes are psychological and physiological addiction.
Alcohol’s legal status in the United States makes alcohol use disorder arguably less stigmatized than some other types of substance use disorders. But it’s no less serious. Like opioids, alcohol addiction comes with a component of physical dependency. Unlike opioids—the withdrawals from are rarely fatal—alcohol withdrawals can cause life-threatening seizures, heart arrhythmia, severe mental delirium, and stroke. If you experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking, it’s important that you seek medical attention right away.
Humans have been consuming alcohol for millennia. It can be a fun social tool, a rite of passage for young adults, a means of calming nerves or reducing situational anxiety, or just a flavorful addition to a meal. Like most any intoxicating substance, alcohol is not inherently bad—but it’s also not inherently safe. Precautions are important. If you’re choosing to drink, please keep these cautions in mind and stay safe!