When people think "April," they think about showers bringing May
flowers and a few rousing pranks on the first of the month. April
is also host to a much more serious event:
Alcohol Awareness Month. The World Health Organization (WHO)
has cited alcohol as the third highest global epidemic in a
potential years of life lost due to premature death. This
annual death toll is estimated to be at least
2.5 million people worldwide. In the United States, this number
is about 88,000.
The CDC reports that more than half of alcohol-related
deaths from 2006 to 2010 were related to car crashes,
overdoses, and other mishaps related to excessive consumption and
over-intoxication. The remaining deaths are associated with a much
less discussed topic, the long-term health effects of alcohol
Long-term alcohol abuse can cause an array of serious health
increased risk for cancer, anemia, mental health issues, heart
disease, and a higher susceptibility to infectious disease.
While the risk for these remains high even after someone quits
drinking, perhaps the most pressing of the long-term medical
conditions involves the liver.
Cirrhosis is a chronic liver disease that, if treated early, can
potentially be kept from progression, but cannot
be cured. Alcoholics rarely seek help at the first sign of
liver distress and often keep drinking, which speeds up the organ's
deterioration. Patients may begin vomiting blood and seeing it when
they pass stools, which are only two of the coagulation-related
issues their body is suffering.
There are also changes in physical appearance, beyond
jaundice, that appear in more advanced stages of liver disease.
Fluids inside the body that the liver would normally process after
eating or drinking instead remain in the abdomen until they are
drained through a catheter inserted by a physician. Between drains,
liters and liters of toxin-ridden fluid build-up, creating the
illusion of pregnancy, which is especially jarring in males. In
the days leading up to a draining, this becomes tremendously
painful for the patient, and can also cause other side effects,
such as nausea and disorientation.
This toxic buildup is most noticeable in the abdomen and legs;
however, this isn't the only place it occurs. Patients can also
encephalopathy, which is a change in brain function and
activity that can lead to poor memory, difficulty with motor
skills, comatose states, and psychosis.
People with late stage cirrhosis have a life expectancy
of about 1 to 3 years, but once cirrhosis progresses into
full-fledged liver failure, there is only one option: a liver
transplant. There are more people in need of organs than readily
viable livers. Most programs require a sobriety
period of at least 6 months before qualification to even get on
the list, and alcoholics, recovering or not, are often a lower
priority than a patient with less risk of rejection or
If you have a problem with drinking, or if someone you know has
a problem, I encourage you to seek help before serious health
complications occur. On April 9, thousands of community-based
organizations, colleges, and military instillations across the
country host National
Alcohol Screening Day. These events are designed to educate the
public about the potential effects of alcoholism and screen for
risk or developing dependency. A simple Google search will produce
plenty in your area. There is also a self-test available on the
National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence's website, and
you can find treatment services locations near you by visiting the
Substance Abuse and
Mental Health Services Administration website.