Diseases & Conditions



Heavy drinking is blamed for up to 33,000 deaths a year in the UK, with the NHS spending more than £164m treating alcohol-related conditions. Doctors have come up with "safe" limits for alcohol consumption, and it is safe to say that 14 daily pints puts Mr Hague well in excess of those. The health benchmark for men is between three and four units a day - approximately one and a half to two pints of normal strength beer. Any more than this, and the health risks begin to rise. And it is no safer saving up your weekly "units" for one big binge at the weekend - this may be just as harmful. Most people are aware of the immediate effects of consuming large quantities of alcohol - although, as the body builds a tolerance to these, the effects often become less obvious. Nausea and sickness Too much alcohol can irritate the stomach, leading to sickness and nausea, and can lead to temporary impotence in men. Alcohol has a dehydrating effect, and the traditional hangover arrives partly as a result. However, it is the longer term effects which worry doctors. Too much alcohol over a prolonged period can affect nearly every organ in your body. Alcohol is essentially a poison, and the cumulative effects can be horrific. Long term drinkers can suffer liver damage, as the liver is the organ that processes the alcohol and removes it from the body. Liver damage There are three types of damage - fatty liver, in which fat is deposited in the liver, impairing its function, alcohol hepatitis, an inflammation of the liver which can cause severe symptoms and lead in some cases to alcoholic cirrhosis, which can eventually cause liver failure if the drinker does not stop. The first two stages are usually reversible, whereas cirrhosis has no cure. Heavy drinkers can suffer from chronic gastritis - essentially a daily recurrence of hangover style nausea and sickness. They can also suffer damage to the oesophagus. Pancreatitis is a common problem in heavy drinkers - this is an extremely painful condition which is hard to treat, and sometimes fatal. Brain damage is also possible in some cases - alcoholic dementia is often found in very long-term drinkers. Heart disease and stroke However, it is damage to the heart and circulatory system that place many drinkers at risk. Drinking over the recommended limits is one of the most common causes of high blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease. Drinking heavily is also likely to greatly increase the calorific intake, perhaps leading to obesity, which also increases these health risks. Regularly drinking more than three units of alcohol a day increases the risk of a type of stroke called haemorrhagic stroke. It can also contribute to osteoporosis, lead to muscle weakness, make skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema worse. In men, there is likely to be a loss of libido and potency, shrinking of the testicles and penis, reduced fertiliy, loss of pubic hair and if cirrhosis is present, increased breast size and loss of body hair. In women, ovulation may cease, and breasts and sexual organs shrivel. Many cancers are alcohol-related, particularly those of the mouth, oesophagus, liver, stomach, colon, rectum, and perhaps breast cancer in women. Harming unborn children Heavy drinking, even in one-off binges, by pregnant women can harm their unborn child. It can lead to miscarriage, low birth weight, and, in the worst cases, to foetal alcohol syndrome, a group of defects which can include lowered IQ, facial malformations and growth deficiencies. Many studies have found suggestions that moderate alcohol drinking, for example one or two units a day, can have a protective effect against in particular heart disease. This has yet to be conclusively proven, as it is not clear whether it is the alcohol, or some other ingredient in the drink, which is having the effect.