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Ask your Pharmacist: Alcohol health risks Part 3

Tuesday, 11th March, 2014 9:53am

Ask your Pharmacist: Alcohol health risks Part 3

Eamonn Brady is a pharmacist and the owner of Whelehans Pharmacy, Pearse St, Mullingar. If you have any health questions e-mail them to

As a continuation of last week’s article, I discuss more conditions that result from long term alcohol abuse.


Heavy drinking can cause epilepsy and can trigger seizures even in those that do not have epilepsy. Alcohol can also interfere with the effect of epilepsy medications used to prevent convulsions.


Gout is an inflammatory condition that is more common in men and often affects the big toe. An acute attack of gout is very painful. Gout is caused by uric acid crystals forming in the joints. Although gout is often hereditary, alcohol and other dietary factors often play a role. Alcohol aggravates existing cases of gout.

High blood pressure

Alcohol disrupts the sympathetic nervous system which has a role in controlling the constriction and dilation of blood vessels in response to stress, temperature and exertion. Heavy drinking, especially binge drinking can cause blood pressure to rise. High blood pressure can lead to many other health problems, including heart disease, stroke and kidney problems.

Infectious disease

Heavy drinking suppresses the immune systems which can lead to infections. Studies show that heavy drinking increases the risk of tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Nerve damage

Heavy drinking can cause a form of nerve damage called alcoholic neuropathy leading to problems such as painful pins-and-needles and numbness in the extremities (eg. fingers, toes) as well problems like muscle weakness, incontinence, constipation and erectile dysfunction. Alcoholic neuropathy arises for two reasons, alcohol is toxic to nerve cells and because nutritional deficiencies (especially vitamin B1 deficiency) thus inhibiting nerve function.

Oesophagus and stomach

Alcohol has a direct effect on the oesophagus relaxing the lower oesophageal sphincter (valve leading to the stomach) which means “acidic” stomach contents are more likely to come up leading to oseophagitis which can cause symptoms like heartburn in the chest area. Alcohol can also delay gastric emptying which can also lead to heartburn and indigestion.

Effect on nutrition

Excess alcohol consumption reduces the level of many important nutrients. This includes thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency which can cause nerve damage (described above). Serious vitamin B1 deficiency is common in chronic alcoholics and can lead to a serious condition called Wernicke-korsakoff which is a serious acute condition characterised by confusion, vision changes, lack of coordination and impaired memory. Many people recovering from excessive alcohol consumption require thiamine supplement. Alcohol can also cause vitamin B12 deficiency (leading to symptoms like fatigue) and reduced calcium absorption (leading to brittle bones especially in women).


As well as causing stomach irritation (gastritis), alcohol can inflame the pancreas. Chronic pancreatitis can restrict digestion, causing severe abdominal pain and persistent diarrhoea. Unfortunately this damage is sometimes irreversible. Chronic pancreatitis can be caused by gallstones, but up to 60% of cases are due to excessive alcohol consumption.

I will discuss options to help beat alcohol addiction in the coming weeks in the Westmeath Examiner

More detailed information and leaflets is available in Whelehans

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