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What is Alcohol (Ethanol)?

Alcohol, also known as ethanol, ethyl alcohol, and grain alcohol, is a clear, colorless liquid. It is the principal intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and distilled spirits. 

In addition to alcoholic drinks, ethanol is used in a variety of other ways as well. It is a common ingredient in hand sanitizers and disinfectants due to its efficacy in killing microorganisms. 

Nearly all gasoline in the United States contains ethanol, typically in a mixture made up of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.

Historically, alcohol has been consumed in line with social activities and gatherings. It has also been used in religious and non-religious rituals, in foods, and as a form of medicine. Alcohol consumption in cultures around the world predates all of written history. 

Although previously used for therapeutic purposes, this is no longer the case in most of the world due to its intoxication effects. Ingesting alcohol ultimately leads to the substance entering the bloodstream and affecting the brain. 

Ethanol’s chemical structure and solubility in water produces intoxicating effects when it comes in contact with some areas of the brain.

Side Effects & Risks of Drinking Alcohol

There are numerous side effects and risks that come with drinking alcohol. 

Depending on factors such as the amount of alcohol ingested, the length of time between drinks, and the physical condition, alcohol can directly cause:

  • Headaches
  • Slurred speech
  • Drowsiness
  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Breathing problems
  • Distorted hearing or vision
  • Impaired judgment 
  • Decreased perception
  • Lack of coordination 
  • Unconsciousness 
  • Alcohol poisoning (intoxication)
  • Coma
  • Blackouts
  • Unintentional injuries such as car accidents, falls, burns, or drowning 
  • Intentional injuries such as firearm injuries, sexual assault, or domestic violence

In addition to these short-term effects, there are many more long-term side effects and risks associated with consuming alcohol.

Continued use and misuse of alcohol can lead to various health problems, including:

  • Loss of overall productivity 
  • Increased on-the-job injuries
  • Broken relationships
  • Increased family problems
  • Greater chance of alcohol intoxication 
  • High blood pressure 
  • Greater chance of stroke and other heart-related diseases 
  • Liver disease 
  • Nerve damage 
  • Sexual problems 
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Vitamin B1 deficiency
  • Ulcers 
  • Gastritis 
  • Malnutrition 
  • Cancer of the mouth and throat

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Is Alcohol The Deadliest Drug of All?

Alcohol is one of the deadliest drugs in the world, if not the deadliest of them all. While some studies list alcohol behind tobacco as the second most lethal drug, there are reputable reports from respected institutions that claim alcohol is in fact the deadliest drug of all. 

Alcohol is three times more harmful than cocaine or tobacco, and, depending on the study cited, kills more people than all drugs combined. 

A big part of why alcohol is so deadly is that it also greatly harms those that have not ingested it. Alcohol can lead to the death of innocent bystanders through impaired driving and other accidents. It also plays a significant role in violent altercations, as more than 40% of violent crimes involve alcohol in the United States. 

Why is Alcohol So Deadly?

There are many reasons why alcohol is so deadly. Alcohol is easy to obtain, easy to use, and directly causes a variety of diseases when misused. 

Even light to moderate drinkers are at an increased risk of developing at least seven different types of cancer. Alcohol can be a direct cause of: 

  • Breast cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Throat cancer
  • Other types of cancer (to a lesser degree)

It is also a major cause of fatty liver disease, cirrhosis of the liver, and alcohol hepatitis.

Alcohol poisoning, also known as an alcohol overdose, can be common, especially in younger people. As little as one night of binge drinking can result in drinking more than the liver and body can handle. This can become deadly if not treated swiftly and properly. 

Lastly, secondhand events that stem from alcohol are potentially as problematic and deadly as the examples listed above. Car accidents caused by driving under the influence (DUI) are a major cause of preventable accidental deaths worldwide.

Drunken injuries, toxic relationships, and property destruction can all have deadly outcomes fueled by alcohol.

Alcohol-Related Deaths Statistics

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States each year. This equates to 261 deaths per day, which is more than all other drugs combined. 

More than half of all alcohol-related deaths are attributable to drinking too much over time. Many of these deaths come in the form of cancer, liver disease, and heart disease directly caused by alcohol consumption. 

However, the short-term effects of consuming large amounts of alcohol over a short period are almost as deadly. This accounts for deaths due to alcohol overdose, poisoning from mixing alcohol with other harmful substances (drug overdoses), suicide, and vehicle crashes involving an intoxicated driver.

CDC’s alcohol-attributable deaths showed that more than 70% involved men and more than 80% involved adults aged 35 or older. Alcohol-related death rates varied across the country, from 21 per 100,000 residents in New York and New Jersey to 53 per 100,000 residents in New Mexico.

How to Prevent Alcohol-Related Deaths

Given that the most common form of preventable death is due to alcohol, there are many ways prevention can occur. There are actions that individuals can do to ensure these deaths are prevented and actions and plans from states and communities. 

Actions that you can take include:

  • Choosing to drink in moderation or choosing not to drink at all. This may be difficult, especially in certain social situations, but it is the best way to avoid alcohol-related death.
  • Support effective strategies to prevent excessive alcohol use. This can be done at the community level or all the way up to the national level.
  • Refuse service to anyone who should not be drinking alcohol, including underage minors and those who have clearly consumed too much.
  • Talk with your doctor or healthcare provider about your own drinking behavior if you are worried about the possibility of adverse effects. Consider counseling if you feel that you drink too much.

Actions at the state or community level that can be done include:

  • Effective strategy development for preventing excessive alcohol use, including regulating alcohol sales and limiting available hours to purchase alcoholic drinks.
  • Proper enforcement of existing regulations on alcohol sales.
  • Proper enforcement of existing laws on impaired driving and other alcohol-related problems.
  • Creating programs in conjunction with community groups, health departments, police departments, and healthcare providers to help reduce excessive drinking and resultant issues.
  • Effectively tracking what role alcohol plays in preventable injuries and deaths.

Treatment Options for Alcohol Addiction

Fortunately, there are numerous options for alcohol addiction, regardless of your location or the severity of your addiction. The first step in treating any alcohol addiction is to undergo a detox to rid the body of this harmful substance. 

If you have a physical dependence on alcohol, a medically supervised detox is likely necessary. This is for safety and efficacy, as professionals can treat the harmful withdrawal effects that accompany the removal of alcohol from a body that has become dependent on it. 

After detox, you may want to explore whether an inpatient or outpatient treatment program would be best. Additionally, many people benefit from attending 12-step programs to treat the root causes of addiction. 

If you or a loved one is suffering from alcohol addiction, reach out to your doctor or healthcare provider to discuss your treatment options.

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Resources

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Deaths From Excessive Alcohol Use in the U.S. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/features/excessive-alcohol-deaths.html

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Use in the United States. NIAAA. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

World Health Organization.  Alcohol. WHO. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/alcohol

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Use. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/alcohol.htm

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. NIAAA. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohols-effects-body

National Health Service. Risks: Alcohol Misuse. NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/risks/

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