Harmful effects of alcohol and illnesses caused by alcohol

It is not only heavy drinkers who suffer from the harmful effects of alcohol and alcohol-related illness – even moderate alcohol use can lead to health problems. In addition to illnesses, alcohol can reduce fertility and make you prone to abdominal obesity. Continued, long-term alcohol use can also expose you to the risk of alcohol dependence (aka alcoholism). Alcohol also increases the risk of being involved in an accident.

The acute risks caused by alcohol

The acute risks and harmful effects associated with alcohol consumption include an increased danger of accidents and poisoning caused by excessive intoxication, and an increased risk of violence. Alcohol abuse also multiplies the risk of suicide.

Alcohol is a significant factor in domestic and leisure-time accidents. One in three fatal accidents occurs under the influence of alcohol. Half of these accidents involve death by alcohol poisoning, with the other half being accounted for by other incidents. Men have a notably higher risk of being involved in an alcohol-related accident than women. The majority of fatal alcohol-related accidents occur in the 55–69 age group.

Young people are a risk group for alcohol poisoning, as they are not fully aware of their own limits. However, young people under the age of 30 rarely die from alcohol poisoning. The majority of deaths from alcohol poisoning occur in the 50–64 age group. Read more about alcohol poisoning.

The acute risks and harmful effects associated with alcohol consumption include an increased danger of accidents and poisoning caused by excessive intoxication, and an increased risk of violence. Alcohol abuse also multiplies the risk of suicide.

Alcohol-induced diseases

In alcoholism a person's mind and body have become dependent on alcohol

Alcoholism (aka alcohol dependency) means that a person’s mind and body have become dependent on alcohol. A high tolerance for alcohol, difficulty in noticing when you are intoxicated, and regular alcohol use all increase your risk of developing an addiction to alcohol. Severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms are almost always a sign of addiction. Read more about alcoholism.

Alcohol disrupts liver function

Cirrhosis is a serious liver condition in which the liver is scarred as healthy tissue is replaced by connective tissue. Finns have one of the highest mortality rates in Europe from cirrhosis and other liver diseases. The main cause of cirrhosis is the high-risk use of alcohol. Read more about cirrhosis.

Pancreatitis is usually caused by alcohol use

Pancreatitis occurs when the cells that produce digestive enzymes start to malfunction and the enzymes are activated whilst still inside the pancreas. Enzymes are released into the area between the pancreatic cells and the surrounding tissue, causing inflammation.

Of the pancreatitis cases diagnosed in Finland, seven out of ten are caused by heavy alcohol consumption. Repeated inflammation may lead to chronic pancreatitis. A poorly functioning pancreas will also produce less insulin, which may result in diabetes.

Alcohol increases coronary and cardiovascular diseases

Heavy alcohol consumption is harmful to cardiac and cardiovascular health. Alcohol raises your blood pressure and puts you at risk of arrhythmia. Regular, long-term alcohol use may damage your cardiac muscle, which can lead to cardiomyopathy or heart failure. Alcohol may also weaken the effectiveness of cardiac and hypertension medication. Read more about the effects of alcohol on medication.

Alcohol increases cancer risks

Alcohol consumption has a proven connection to many different types of cancers. The risk increases in proportion to the amount of alcohol you have consumed during your lifetime. Acetaldehyde is held to be a key factor. The body transforms the ethanol contained in alcohol into acetaldehyde, which is a poisonous chemical that damages DNA and prevents cell repair. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified acetaldehyde and alcohol (ethanol) as carcinogens.

Smoking and heavy alcohol consumption are the main causal factors for cancer of the pharynx, throat and oesophagus.

Alcohol damages liver cells and increases the risk of cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is in turn a major risk factor for liver cancer.

In men, alcohol also increases the risk of cancer of the large intestine. Although it most likely increases the risk for women as well, the results are not quite so clear cut.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer found in Finnish women. The most significant risk factors for breast cancer involve hormonal factors. Being overweight also increases your risk of breast cancer. Alcohol is an additional risk for breast cancer, and the risk increases in direct proportion to alcohol consumption.

Alcohol increases abdominal obesity

Abdominal obesity refers to the excess accumulation of fat in the abdominal area, the abdominal organs and the liver. Often, abdominal obesity is also linked to the risk of developing fatty liver disease. Studies indicate that people who consume large quantities of alcohol have more fat in their abdominal cavity than moderate drinkers. Abdominal obesity, and likewise excess weight in general, may raise your blood pressure and put you at risk of diabetes.

Alcohol reduces fertility

Alcohol use has an impact on fertility. Studies show that even small quantities of alcohol may affect a man’s sperm count. Heavy alcohol consumption will also reduce a woman’s fertility.

The safest option is to quit drinking alcohol when you begin planning a pregnancy, as it may take some time to realise that you are pregnant and alcohol can have harmful effects on the foetus’s development in the early stages of pregnancy. Read more about alcohol and pregnancy.

Article sources:
Cancer Society of Finland
Duodecim Terveyskirjasto
Finnish Institute for health and welfare
Finnish Heart Association
Kidney and Liver Association
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health

Article picture: Folio Images