Alcohol-Related Deaths: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on March 13, 2024
5 min read

An occasional alcoholic drink every now and then can be fine. But drinking too much can kill. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, alcohol-related deaths total around 3 million each year globally. It’s also a leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S.

Over half of alcohol-related deaths are because of health effects from drinking too much over time. It can lead to things like cancer, liver disease, and heart disease. But drinking a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time can also be deadly. It can cause alcohol poisoning or lead to other dangers like motor vehicle accidents.

In the short term, even a small amount of alcohol can affect your alertness, affect muscle coordination, and cause you to feel drowsy.

If you drink too often, misuse alcohol like binge drink, or drink to the point of blacking out, it can cause many physical and mental health issues in the long term. It can also lead to alcohol use disorder, a form of addiction.

The major effects of short-term, high volume alcohol drinking include:

Alcohol poisoning. When you drink too much, it can affect the amount of alcohol in your blood. This is called blood alcohol concentration (BAC), which is a type of measurement of the alcohol in your blood. If the percentage of alcohol rises to toxic levels, it can wreak havoc on your body. For example, a BAC of 0.08% is considered the legal limit to operate a motorized vehicle in all 50 states. But if you binge drink a lot of alcoholic beverages in a few hours, the blood-alcohol levels could be toxic enough to cause you to:

  • Slip into a coma
  • Have a heart attack
  • Stop breathing
  • Have seizures

For women, binge drinking is defined as consuming four or more drinks in the span of 2 hours. For men, it’s five or more drinks in a span of 2 hours. Most alcohol poisoning deaths happen between ages 35 and 64.

Car accidents. Driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous because it affects your ability to reason, think clearly, judge, or follow traffic laws. It puts your life and the safety of those around you at risk, too. On average, drunk driving kills around 28 people per day in the U.S.

Violence. Drinking too much alcohol makes you more likely to cause accidental violent deaths. 40% of violent crimes like assault, homicide, and domestic abuse were committed by people who had high BAC at the time of their arrest. Moreover, people who drink too much are more likely to attempt suicide. About 30% of people who commit suicide drink alcohol right before.

Some longer-term effects of drinking can include:

Cancer. Alcohol is a carcinogen. That means it’s made of things that increase your risk for cancer. Heavy drinking is responsible for about 3.5% of cancer deaths. The most common alcohol-related cancers are:

  • Mouth
  • Liver
  • Throat
  • Esophagus
  • Stomach

Heart disease. Alcohol can increase your risk for high blood pressure, which can put you at risk for a heart attack or a stroke. And while alcohol is a liquid, it can still pack on empty calories, and drinking too much may lead to obesity. This can increase your risk for heart disease in the long run.

Liver damage and disease. When you drink, your body has no place to store alcohol. So it’s your liver’s job to detoxify and remove alcohol from your blood. The liver breaks down alcohol into acetaldehyde, a toxic substance that scars and inflames the liver. This chemical also interferes with the liver’s ability to break down and metabolize fats. This causes that fat to accumulate and may lead to fatty liver -- an early stage of alcohol-related liver disease.

Over time, too much scarring in the liver can lead to cirrhosis. It’s a life-threatening, late-stage liver disease that can stop the liver from properly filtering blood. This can cause other organs in your body to shut down and increase your risk for death. Cirrhosis usually takes decades to develop, and sometimes people are not aware of it until it’s too late. It’s hard to reverse the effects of cirrhosis. It causes up to 26,000 deaths each year.

Men are twice as likely to develop cirrhosis and four times as likely to develop liver cancer.

According to research, more men die from alcohol-related death than women. They account for over 75%. But women are more likely to experience domestic abuse or sexual assault when alcohol is involved.

Excessive drinking makes up around 18% of ER visits and over 22% percent of overdose-related deaths compared to other substance misuse products like opioids.

People under 21, the legal age limit to drink alcohol in the U.S., have a higher risk of dying from binge drinking or other risky behaviors. This includes driving under the influence, injuries, sexual assault, or violence. Alcohol also affects proper brain development in teenagers. Thousands of people under 21 die from alcohol-related deaths in the U.S. each year.

There are things you can do to lower the risk of alcohol-related deaths. You can quit or cut back on how many alcoholic beverages you drink. According to the American Dietary Guidelines, moderate alcohol intake includes two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women.

Don’t drink if you are:

  • Younger than 21
  • Pregnant or may be pregnant
  • Driving or planning to drive
  • Do activities that require alertness like operating heavy machinery or tools
  • Taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications that can interact with alcohol
  • Have certain medical conditions like cancer

If you drink heavily or notice signs of liver damage or other health issues that may be related to drinking too much alcohol, talk to your doctor about it. If necessary, they can refer you to a rehabilitation center to get the drinking under control.

If drinking alcohol is taking a toll on your mental health, let your doctor know or talk to a licensed mental health specialist such as a counselor or therapist.

If you’re feeling suicidal, The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always open. You can reach a trained counselor at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).