Whether addicted or not, drinking large amounts of alcohol causes or increases the risk of diseases in almost all parts of the body, including the brain. The harms of drinking too much alcohol are often wrapped up with other health problems, such as a bad diet, and social problems such as poverty and unemployment. Alcohol causes damage to the heart, pancreas and other organs. The liver, which works to detoxify the body from alcohol, is often worst affected. The death toll from liver disease has been steadily rising over the last few decades, which can largely be put down to alcohol use.
Alcohol is also a carcinogen. It causes or increases the risk of many types of cancer including common ones like breast cancer, although moderate drinking seems to reduce the risk of a few rarer cancers. Alcohol can also cause diabetes, hormonal imbalances and sexual dysfunction.
Alcohol is particularly toxic to the brain. Women who drink heavily while they are pregnant may cause severe harm to the foetus, especially to the foetus’ developing brain. This is called foetal alcohol syndrome and in severe cases this causes profound intellectual disabilities and behavioural problems. In adults, alcoholism causes brain shrinkage and is the second biggest cause of dementia. Long-term alcoholism with malnourishment can cause Wernicke–Korsakoff syndrome, which can leave permanent brain damage with dementia and amnesia (inability to remember).
About a quarter of people with alcohol dependence suffer from mental illnesses. However, it is often difficult to tell whether some mental health conditions are caused by alcohol, or whether people drink to try to deal with their conditions. Sometimes both can be true, creating a vicious circle. For example, many people with alcohol dependence may be self-medicating for their anxiety and depression, which can in turn add to their condition.
Damage to employment, families and communities
An unhealthy relationship with alcohol can impact others aside from the drinker. All addictions can make it difficult to hold down a job, and can be damaging to relationships. It can be very hard to live with an alcoholic or binge drinker. Binge drinking is associated with anti-social behaviour that can fracture families and communities. Alcoholism like any addiction takes up time and resources, making it very difficult for homeless and vulnerably housed people to improve their situation. It can be a serious obstacle to employment and rehabilitation.
Association with crime and antisocial behaviour
When people are under the influence of alcohol, especially after binge drinking, they are often less able to control violent impulses or act with good judgement. The majority of assaults on young people which lead to hospital treatment are alcohol-related, and roughly half of domestic violence occurs after the perpetrator has been drinking. Alcohol is a major factor in the maltreatment of children. Drunkenness, even when non-violent, uses up police time, accounting for most arrests that occur at night. Very drunk offenders are particularly time-consuming, as they are more likely to be disruptive and uncooperative, and they need to be checked every few minutes to ensure their safety after arrest.
Being drunk also makes people more likely to be victims of crime. Whilst sexual assault can never be blamed on the victim and most rape victims are not drunk, in assaults which are facilitated by drugs alcohol is almost always present, and is often the only intoxicant involved.