Alcohol dependence can affect almost every part of the body, but some of the most common physical effects occur in the liver, pancreas and heart.
Excessive alcohol use is associated with four main liver problems: steatosis, alcoholic hepatitis, fibrosis and cirrhosis. Steatosis, commonly known as fatty liver, develops when people drink too much alcohol, damaging the liver cells. People who abuse alcohol are more likely to develop steatosis if they are obese, take medications that are metabolized by the liver, or have diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity or certain infections.
Alcoholic hepatitis is a form of liver inflammation associated with repeated alcohol use. Although the condition is typically associated with heavy drinking, alcoholic hepatitis can develop in people who engage in moderate drinking over long periods of time. Early symptoms include yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice), abdominal tenderness, nausea, vomiting, fatigue and low-grade fevers. As the disease advances, it may cause fluid to build up in the abdomen, a condition known as ascites.
Fibrosis and cirrhosis are both forms of liver disease that can cause serious health problems. When people abuse alcohol, the liver has to work extra hard, which can damage the liver cells. When the liver attempts to repair these damaged cells, scar tissue forms, causing fibrosis. Severe fibrosis leads to cirrhosis, an irreversible condition that causes weakness, loss of appetite, nausea and fevers. Advanced cirrhosis can also cause jaundice, itching, memory loss and other serious symptoms.
Alcohol addiction is also associated with pancreatitis, a condition characterized by inflammation of the pancreas, the organ responsible for producing insulin. Chronic pancreatitis causes abdominal pain, unintended weight loss and oily stools. A severe case of pancreatitis may even lead to kidney failure, diabetes, breathing problems and other serious side effects.
People with alcohol problems may also develop heart conditions that increase their risk for stroke or heart attack. One of those conditions is arrhythmia, or abnormal heart rhythm. When the heart beats too fast or slow, it can cause lightheadedness, sweating, chest pain or dizziness. Alcohol use disorders have also been linked to cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes the heart muscle to stretch, increasing the risk for heart failure.