If you know an alcoholic, you probably have seen the physical and behavioral – and, in many cases, devastating – results of addiction to this powerful substance. However, you may not realize the full extent of what is going on inside the alcoholic's body. As the addiction progresses, the alcoholic may severely damage a number of body organs and systems. Perhaps you have observed some of these changes – but what do they really mean for your loved one's long-term health?

  • Cirrhosis: When cirrhosis is caused by alcoholism, it is usually the result of heavy drinking (the definition of which varies by individuals) over many years. Scar tissue replaces healthy tissue, and, over the course of time, liver function decreases; liver damage from cirrhosis is irreversible. In addition to filtering toxins from the blood, the liver is responsible for creating proteins that play a role in clotting blood, and regulating fats and glucose (sugar) that circulate through the blood and fuel the body. Cirrhosis can cause many other serious complications. Water may begin to accumulate in the legs or abdomen; bruising and bleeding may occur more easily; insulin resistance may lead to Type II Diabetes; toxins may accumulate in the blood and change mental functioning or lead to coma and death; the skin may yellow as jaundice sets in.
  • Brain/Nervous System Damage: Observing a drinker makes it immediately clear that alcohol influences the brain and behavior. Depending on the number of drinks that have been consumed, the person may slur their speech, have lapses in memory, demonstrate impaired coordination, and/or become aggressive or withdrawn. Many types of cognitive deficits and disorders may result as a direct or indirect (for example, from toxin build-up from cirrhosis) consequence of alcohol use. Among them is Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, which is caused, in part, by deficiencies of thiamine that often are associated with prolonged alcohol use. Signs of Wernicke's encephalopathy (the first stage) include impaired muscle coordination, paralysis of the nerves that are responsible for moving the eyes, and mental confusion. The majority of alcoholic patients will also go through the second stage, Korsakoff's psychosis, after developing Wernicke's encephalopathy. This long-term stage is characterized by profound memory problems, especially with recent memories, and difficulty with coordination. Another condition called alcoholic neuropathy involves decreased nerve functioning; symptoms include weakness, cramps, tingling, and male impotence.
  • Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy: Excessive alcohol consumption over an extended period of time may lead to this condition, which is characterized by thinning of the heart muscle and enlargement of the heart. All parts of the body may be indirectly affected because the weakened heart pumps blood less efficiently. Ultimately, alcoholic cardiomyopathy may lead to heart failure.
  • Pancreatitis: Chronic alcoholism is associated with pancreatitis, which is characterized by the inflammation of the pancreas. This can cause sudden and severe pain and problems with digestion. Many alcoholics with pancreatitis experience nausea and vomiting; extreme cases may cause a coma.
  • Ketoacidosis: Ketoacidosis occurs when ketones (by products of the breakdown of fatty acids) build up in the blood. Symptoms include strained or abnormal breathing, agitation, impaired movements, pain in the abdominal region, and nausea/vomiting.