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The health risks of alcohol: What you need to know

The CDC estimates there are 88,000 deaths per

The CDC estimates there are 88,000 deaths per year linked to alcohol use. Photo Credit: iStock

Recently, I wrote about what I might say if my daughter asked about the health effects of marijuana. Ever since then, I can't help but to think about my own occasional drug use: alcohol.

Unless you are a chemist, “alcohol” refers to a specific chemical more precisely known as ethanol (or ethyl alcohol). Whether you are drinking beer, wine or liquor, you are consuming the same drug, ethanol. By the way, this is the same substance that is mixed into the gasoline your car uses and is also the active ingredient in most hand sanitizers such as Purell.

People drink alcohol for many reasons not least of which is the advertising industry, which spends enormous amounts of money glorifying drinking.

But, alcohol use is associated with many problems, which are frequently ignored.

For one, it’s fattening. It has even more calories than sugar and no nutritional value.

More importantly, the CDC estimates there are 88,000 deaths per year linked to alcohol use. As most people know, it is a major cause of liver diseases such as hepatitis and cirrhosis. What many people don’t realize is the role that alcohol plays in many other diseases.  Problems such gastritis, pancreatitis, dementia, heart muscle damage and anemia are commonly seen in drinkers. Even high blood pressure is often worsened by alcohol use.

Drinking also increases the risk of developing many cancers such as those of the liver, esophagus, and head and neck. Even as few as two drinks a day increases the risk of breast cancer in females.  

It is well known that alcohol can be very addicting and alcoholism is a major health issue. It is estimated that about eight percent of adults suffer from outright alcohol abuse or addiction. This creates enormous suffering not only to those doing the drinking but also to their family and friends.

What should you watch out for? Increasing tolerance, a preoccupation with drinking, unsuccessful attempts to cut down, drinking more than planned, blackouts, hiding your drinks, or feeling guilty about your drinking are some of the signs of trouble.

Giving up alcohol can be extremely difficult and usually requires professional assistance. Drinkers in need of help will often deny they have a problem and will only seek help when a health care provider or someone who is adversely affected by their drinking urges them to do so. Unfortunately relapse after treatment is common and many patients require several attempts before succeeding. Many will never succeed and will die from their addiction.

Drinking during pregnancy is a frequent cause of physical and behavioral problems in children. There is no proven “safe” amount of drinking for pregnant women.

What is especially upsetting about many people's alcohol use is the issue of drunk driving, where innocent lives are placed in danger by others using alcohol. About 10,000 Americans die each year in car accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers, according to the CDC. Most people don’t usually engage in activities that can put them in jail, yet over 4,000 DWI arrests were made in Nassau and Suffolk last year. How many more engaged in this destructive behavior but didn’t get caught?

If my daughter were to ever press me about the risks of alcohol, I'd have to agree, it is a dangerous drug: use with great caution.


Dr. Stephen Picca of Massapequa is Board Certified in both Internal Medicine and Anesthesiology. He is retired from practice.

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