Death is Not the Only Negative Effect of Alcohol Misuse

How a Pandemic Surge in Drinking is Now Hurting Americans

Sick woman lying in hospital bed with hand being held by love one.

For every person who dies from drinking too much alcohol, there are dozens more who suffer lifelong diseases, health conditions, injuries, and behavioral problems due to their alcohol misuse. A recent study showed how the spike in excessive drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic is now coming back to harm Americans in the form of a spike in alcohol-related liver damage. Above and beyond the immediate and acute harms that Americans faced when they drank to excess during the pandemic, now those same individuals are experiencing serious medical conditions resulting from months of excessive alcohol consumption.

The rude awakening here is that, despite being legal and strongly promoted across virtually all channels of American life, alcohol is harmful and causes serious damage to a person’s life, often without being immediately fatal. However, it’s clear the damage adds up and many succumb to related disease.

Eight Ways Alcohol Causes Serious Damage

According to research presented at an event called Digestive Disease Week, alcohol-related gastrointestinal and liver diseases surged in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and have remained elevated since. Furthermore, the proportion of those patients who require inpatient interventions for such diseases has also surged, highlighting the severity of pandemic-related alcohol-caused liver disease.

Two doctors talking

The researchers theorized that because Americans drank more alcohol during COVID-19 lockdowns, serious liver disease cases spiked in both number and severity. Quoting Dr. Waihong Chung, the lead researcher of the study and a research fellow for the Division of Gastroenterology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, “When we went into lockdown, many people experienced significant negative impacts, such as social isolation, job loss, and an increase in anxiety and depression. These experiences may have led people to increase their alcohol consumption, which could explain why we are seeing a surge in the volume of consultations for alcohol-related diseases.”

The researchers examined all inpatient consults for gastrointestinal issues in 2019 and compared those to 2020. The number of consults went down somewhat during lockdowns (partially because of restrictions on hospital visits due to COVID). Then as soon as the lockdowns began to recede consults increased sharply by 59% over 2019’s numbers. The increase in inpatient visits was almost entirely from alcohol-related hepatitis, cirrhosis, pancreatitis, and gastritis. Furthermore, there were no significant changes in the proportions of consults for non-alcohol-related liver diseases, suggesting that the surge in liver problems was almost entirely alcohol-related.

Liver disease is just one of many ways in which people are severely harmed by drinking alcohol to excess. Here are seven others to consider:

  • Cardiovascular effects of excessive drinking. Frequent and excessive alcohol consumption places a heavy toll on the heart and cardiovascular system. Drinking too much in isolated incidences or over time can damage the heart, causing problems such as cardiomyopathy, arrhythmias, stroke, and high blood pressure. These effects can be permanent, causing lasting harm to the heart and its ability to function properly.
  • Alcohol-related cancers. Alcohol consumption has been linked to higher chances for the onset of various cancers, including head and neck cancer, esophageal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer, just to name a few.
  • Weight gain. As alcohol contains empty calories and no nutritional value, drinking alcohol (especially over time) can lead to unwanted weight gain.
Sleeping problem
  • Sleeping problems. Alcohol consumption before bed can inhibit one’s sleep cycle, specifically their REM sleep cycle. According to Dr. Abhinav Singh, “Sleepers who drink large amounts of alcohol before going to bed are often prone to delayed sleep onset, meaning they need more time to fall asleep. As liver enzymes metabolize the alcohol during the night and the blood alcohol level decreases, these individuals are also more likely to experience sleep disruptions and decreases in sleep quality.”
  • Cognitive problems. From a physiological standpoint, alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, affecting how the brain thinks and works. Not only can these disruptions affect cognitive function, but they can also negatively affect mood and behavior.
  • Immune health. As many Americans have become more aware of the need to protect their immune system, it’s worth mentioning that alcohol consumption harms immune health. According to the NIAAA, “People who drink chronically are more liable to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows your body’s ability to ward off infections – even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.” The more often people get drunk, the less likely their immune system will function properly.
  • Behavioral problems. The list of potential behavioral problems caused or exaggerated by alcohol misuse is a long one. Alcohol misuse can cause or exacerbate depression, anxiety, psychosis, anger, aggression, hysteria, nervousness, fear, grief, apathy, and so on.

Alcohol Misuse in America – The Hidden Danger

While it is known that alcohol can be harmful, the substance is still highly accepted and normalized within American culture. Given that the American people just experienced a stark and noticeable surge in alcohol-related liver disease due to excessive drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps time that Americans had an honest conversation about the harm caused by alcohol consumption.

Doctors and nurses pulling hospital trolley,

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 25% of America’s adult population drinks to excess at least once per month, with 6% of Americans meeting the qualifications for alcohol addiction. About 14.5 million Americans are addicted to alcohol, yet only about 7% of addicts receive any treatment for addiction in any given year. Meanwhile, about 95,000 Americans die from alcohol-related harm each year, making alcohol misuse one of the leading causes of preventable death in America.

The Need to Cut Back – Alcohol Misuse Presents Harm in Many Forms

Alcohol is harmful, and Americans need to cut back on their drinking. There is no reason to drink at all, and even having just one alcoholic beverage poses a risk to the individual. It would be far better if people did not drink alcohol.

Though the media and public discourse tend to focus on the people who die from drinking too much alcohol, the truth is that alcohol misuse has a long list of negative, often serious, sometimes permanent effects that are unrelated to overdose or death.

If you or someone you care about is drinking alcohol and cannot stop drinking it, please seek help from a qualified alcohol addiction treatment center as soon as possible. Please do not wait until it is too late. Get help today.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.