Everyone in the healthcare field should understand the medical aspects of alcoholism. There are medications that can help with the treatment of alcoholism or the consequences of alcohol misuse. Not all misuse of alcohol is alcoholism, but any drinking that’s over a moderate amount can create medical issues.
There are drugs for detox from alcoholism, drugs that make a person sick when they drink alcohol, drugs that counter the pleasurable feeling received from alcohol, drugs that help with anxiety during withdrawal from alcohol, drugs that prevent seizures when a person is withdrawing from alcohol and drugs that repair the physical damage caused by heavy drinking.
But before the treatment of alcoholism or alcohol misuse can begin, there must first be a recognition of medical signs and symptoms:
I. GENERAL APPEARANCE
A. Hand Tremor
Part of alcohol withdrawal. Can begin within hours after cessation of alcohol
intake. Mild expression of withdrawal.
B. Excitability, Irritability, Nervousness
This stems from the sedative effect of alcohol being removed – the body
rebounds from depression of the central nervous system to stimulation. This
may also be part of first stage alcohol withdrawal, resulting from the decrease of
alcohol in the blood stream. Also caused by lack of sleep; alcohol can cause a
disturbance in REM sleep. REM sleep is necessary for the body to physically
and psychologically recover each and every day.
The result of liver damage. The yellow color comes from the pigment found in
bile, a digestive juice made by the liver (the liver secretes 500 ml of bile/day).
Bile is handled improperly and thus begins to circulate in the bloodstream,
causing the skin color to change to yellow
D. Rosacea, Seborrheic Dermatitis (dry, red, itchy skin)
Caused by a nutritional deficiency, especially B vitamin, as well as poor personal
E. Parotid Swelling
Alcohol affects salivary glands which leads to an increased stickiness of saliva,
causing blockage of salivary ducts and a mumps-like appearance due to swelling
of parotid gland.
F. Finger Clubbing
Referred to as “Drumstick” disease. Tips of fingers swell, causing a puffiness
that covers the fingernails. The cause is alcohol cardiomyopathy, resulting in
poor circulation to extremities.
G. Rhinophyma (“Drinker’s Nose”)
A painless increase in nasal sweat glands which causes an increase in the size
of the lower part of the nose.
II. GASTROINTESTINAL TRACT
A general feeling of discomfort after eating. Due to imperfect digestion (not an
illness itself, but a symptom of one). A sign of gastritis, which is inflammation of
the stomach and is the most common GI ailment stemming from alcoholism.
B.Nausea & Vomiting
Vomiting has been referred to as the body’s “housecleaning” – when the body is
unable to process food in the stomach, the system tends to force its removal.
Also a sign of gastritis.
C. Recurrent Diarrhea
Alcohol changes the motility of the intestinal tract. The first 16 to 20 inches of the
small intestine are impacted. Once the stomach deposits chyme (gruel-like
material produced by gastric digestion of food) in the small intestine, the body
should begin to absorb the necessary food stuff for use and storage. Alcohol in
the blood stream inhibits the small intestine from absorbing certain minerals and
nutrients from the chyme, causing it to function improperly. Beyond that point,
alcohol causes an increase in the rate of propulsion of food through the small
intestine. This results in malabsorption of food in the remainder of the small
D. Recurrent Abdominal Pain
Alcohol causes inflammation of stomach and colon.
E. Acute & Chronic Pancreatitis
About 50% of all cases of pancreatitis are alcohol related. Alcohol has a direct
toxic effect on the pancreas, causing changes in the secretions of the pancreas.
Increased secretion of digestive juices can produce pancreatic irritation and
damage. Most researchers believe that the disease-causing mechanism is the
alcohol-induced increase in protein concentration in pancreatic juice –
precipitates and clogs the ducts of the organ.
1. Acute pancreatitis
Most often seen in men, 26-65 years of age, with a minimum of 5-10 years of
Symptoms: Constant, severe epigastric pain which may radiate to the back;
nausea and vomiting. Usually begins one or two days after heavy use.
2. Chronic pancreatitis
Gradual, subtle onset with severe pain
F. Hypoglycemia & Hyperglycemia
Alcohol causes rapid change in blood sugar – with the increase of alcohol in the
blood stream, the pancreas responds with an increased output of insulin that
leads to a decrease of blood sugar. This decrease causes the liver to produce
glycogen to replace the lost blood sugar, generally resulting in an increase in
G. Gastrointestinal Bleeding
Prime cause is the destruction of the stomach lining due to an increase in
stomach acids. This may also result in ulcers, causing additional bleeding.
Metabolizing alcohol is always a priority for the liver (approximately 1/2 ounce of
ETOH per hour). The toxic effects of alcohol can cause several problems, even
with proper nutrition:
1. Alcohol fatty liver – Liver overproduces glycogen to compensate for lost sugar
in bloodstream; Metabolism of alcohol leads to accumulation of free fatty acids
which leads to an increased concentration of fat in the liver.
Signs and Symptoms: liver enlargement; changes in liver enzymes (detectable
on a routine lab examination).
2. Alcoholic hepatitis – Syndrome of necrosis (cell death) and inflammation may
occur rapid or over a long period of time.
Signs and Symptoms: Hepatomegaly (enlarged liver), jaundice, liver pain, fever,
leukocytosis (increased WBC’s), ascities – cirrhosis may result from this
3. Cirrhosis – Advanced necrosis with resultant scarring associated with formation
of nodules – generally irreversible to 100%, though liver can reproduce tissues to
restore a greater level of health with abstinence.
4. Ascites – the accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity. Due to an increase
in the size of the liver and compression of the liver on blood vessels, resulting in
the leakage of fluid from the liver into the abdominal cavity. A tell-tale sign of this
condition is the wave-like action of the abdominal cavity when tapped, as well as
the skin tone appearing paper thin and glistening.
Irregularity in heartbeat occurs both in patients with alcohol related diseases and
in other individuals during alcohol intoxication.
Otherwise known as heart disease – one out of thirty-six alcoholics develop this
Signs and symptoms: Chronic shortness of breath and signs of congestive heart
Alcohol inhibits the bone marrow’s ability to use iron in making hemoglobin, the
oxygen-carrying part of blood. B12 not taken in or poorly stored which leads to
immature RBC’s or WBC’s. Incomplete production of red blood cells; defect in
RBC maturation leads to macrocytosis (enlargement) and increased Mean
Corpuscular Volume (MCV). Bone marrow is sedated by alcohol – unable to
produce as many RBC’s or WBC’s. Three drinks destroy as many platelets as
you can make in one day. This leads to bruising and high clotting times.
D. Dilation of Blood Vessels
Alcohol causes peripheral blood vessels to dilate and leads to a loss of body
heat. Many people drink straight spirits in cold weather to increase warmth when
in reality alcohol causes the body to lose its internal heat. Such an effect can
lead to frostbite. Body temperature regulate is also impaired.
IV. RESPIRATORY SYSTEMS
A. Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease (COAD)
Related to loss of air capacity of lungs and loss of elasticity – alcohol contributes
to this. Alcohol has a direct toxic effect on lung tissue and kills the alveoli (air
sacs) in the lungs.
B. Recurrent Chest Infection and Pneumonia
Alcohol dries lung tissue and bronchi and causes them to become irritated and
inflamed and susceptible to infection. Alcoholics have decreased ability to fight
infections due to suppression of the immune system (decreased WBC’s and
machrophage). Alcohol has a numbing effect and makes it hard to get secretions
out of the lung.
V. CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM
A. Impact on Neurons (Brain Cells)
It has long been estimated that each drink of alcohol kills approximately 10,000
neurons. Recent scientific findings now suggest that the cells may not actually
die, but be “disconnected” as a result of drinking and not be able to perform their
tasks. Either way, neurons are specialized cells that do not reproduce. Alcohol
thickens the conductive material between brain cells, slowing down electrical
impulses – cell has trouble referring impulses from one cell to the next. Damage
to the brain caused by alcohol particularly affects the frontal lobes, making a
person unable to give up behavior patterns which are harmful. He is unable to
make long-range plans and use intellect for decision making. May take up to two
years for all functions to return, if they do at all.
B. Short-Term Memory Impairment
Alcohol interferes with brain functioning and can cause loss of memory,
particularly for recent events. Chronic drinking for ten days or more leads to
impaired protein synthesis which leads to brain cell damage. Memory tends to
return to normal after a period of abstinence from alcohol.
Short-term memory loss is like a period of amnesia. Quantity of alcohol
consumed seems to have no direct relationship to frequency of blackouts.
Tend to occur from 7-48 hours after cessation of drinking. Commonly of the
grand mal type, but can also be petit mal seizures: 1-3% of all chronic abusers
will have seizures. Chronic alcoholism results in an abnormally elevated seizure
threshold followed by a period of lowered seizure threshold; this, plus decreased
blood alcohol level, altered electrolytes, and decreased blood glucose, can lead
E. Peripheral Neuropathy (nerve disease)
Vitamin B deficiency, especially thiamine, leads to peripheral neuropathy (tingling
and numbness in hands and feet). Vitamin B deficiency leads to impaired
production of the enzymes needed for maintaining the covering of the nerve
cells. This loss causes destruction of nerve cells which results in tingling and
numbness, as well as muscle weakness.
F. Ataxia (Loss of Balance)
Results of peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage)- loss of balance and
coordination occurs which results in the characteristic of the “wide based gait” in
order to keep balance. Late onset, generally develops over months of use, a
result of vitamin B deficiency
G. Insomnia, Nightmares
Large amount of alcohol disturbs REM sleep. Brain forces REM sleep, resulting
in dreams that are intense, nightmare in quality.
Basically means that the brain is so sick and irritable that it sees, hears and feels
things that aren’t there. Agitated condition breaks through because alcohol has
raised agitation so high that no amount of current sedation can reduce it
I. Delirium Tremens
Late stage withdrawal phenomenon. Sensory input plus motor output has
become tremendous, and alcoholic is unable to stop moving.
All four stages of withdrawal present:
3. Convulsive seizures,
4. Delirium Tremens.
Observable features include restlessness, increased blood pressure (especially
diastolic reading), increased pulse and low-grade temperature.
J. Wernicke Syndrome, Korsakoff Psychosis
Both caused by nutritional deficiencies, especially the loss of thiamine, plus toxic
effects of alcohol on nerve tissue
1. Wernicke Syndrome – Injury to the brainstem and areas near the third and
fourth ventricle of the brain – results in:
Hyperactivity and delirium. Responds rapidly to vitamins – this condition is
reversible with vitamin replacement.
Signs and symptoms: Confused, delirious and apprehensive. Characteristic
dysfunction: Nystagmus (eyes do not track together), ataxia.
2. Korsakoff Psychosis – Chronic brain damage caused by thiamine deficiency.
Sludging of dead red blood cell components in small capillaries results in cell and
tissue destruction due to hyposia (lack of oxygen); Damage occurs to the
cerebral cortex and peripheral nerve tissue.
Signs and symptoms: Severe disorientation, delirium, memory loss and
confabulation (hallmark sign – due to memory loss, the individual generally
makes up elaborate stories to cover the loss or to fill in holes in the memory).
A. Muscle Atrophy
Wasting of muscles due to improper nourishment to muscle tissue – can result in
acute pain in upper arms, shoulders and pelvic area.
B. Alcoholic Myopathy
Long-term alcohol use produces increased levels of enzyme serum creatine and
phosphokinase, resulting in muscle cramps, weakness.
– Sudden onset of weakness – may be acute pain in skeletal muscles;
– Follows drinking bout;
– Involves proximal muscles, extremities, pelvic and shoulder girdle, muscles of
the thoracic cage.
– Muscle weakness involving muscle groups as listed above, but without pain
– Enzymes on blood test are not elevated, making it difficult to diagnose the
problem, especially if the person denies drinking.
C. Nephritis (Inflammation of the Kidneys)
Kidneys fail to operate efficiently, leaking out blood cells, albumin, etc. May
result in a red color to the urine.
D. Amenorrhea (Loss of Menstruation)
Alcohol interferes with the absorption of calcium which is needed for the ovaries
to work efficiently. Use of alcohol may cause women to skip menstrual periods.
Alcohol interferes with the absorption of calcium which is needed for the ovaries
to work efficiently. Not as much known about women’s disorders in general since
the increase of women in treatment is relatively new, and research is lacking.
Use of alcohol decreases testosterone, increases estrogen in the male (liver fails
to work properly to assist in sex hormone levels). Results in feminization
features (loss of facial hair, possible breast enlargement). Alcohol also has a
direct toxic effect on testes and leads to a decreased plasma testosterone,
decreased fertility and atrophic (shrunken) testes.
A. Polyuria (increased urine flow)
Alcohol has a diuretic effect while blood alcohol increases. Diuresis caused by
supression of the release of anti-diuretic hormones from the pituitary gland. ADH
allows kidneys to filter water from urine, reabsorbing water and moving urine to
bladder for disposal. With loss of filtering ability, the kidneys pass the water with
the urine, generally causing an increase urge to void. Extent of diuresis is
dependent on a rising blood alcohol condition and the rate of rise. As BAC
becomes steady or falls, effect is reversed and the body actually can cause the
retention of urine and exacerbation of urinary tract infections and/or prostatitis.
B. Electrolyte Imbalance
Excretion of sodium and chloride is decreased due to drinking. Alcohol causes
the loss of magnesium which leads to restlessness, mental slowing.
IX. LAB VALUES TO OBSERVE
Many of the problems and conditions discussed above may not materialize until many
years of problem drinking has existed. Waiting for physical conditions to occur before
diagnosing the problem of alcoholism has lead to the extraordinarily high death rate.
Yet current research suggests that various indicators do exist that signal the likelihood
of alcoholism. A standard blood test can give an indication of the internal workings of
the human body, as well as a look at how alcohol might be causing disruption to the
normally healthy systems.
Research suggests that by looking for the following values on a blood test, an effective
diagnosis might be reached well in advance of physical tissue destruction:
1. Increased Uric Acid
2. Increased Triglycerides
3. Increased GGT
4. Increased MCV (mean corpuscular volume)(due to cell being deficient in B12
and folic acid – cell has to work harder and grows larger)
5. Increased Alkaline Phosphatose (true in cases of chronic alcoholism
I could have linked to this long list, but I wanted to have a post that truly reflects the damage caused by alcoholism or alcohol misuse.