The younger a person is when alcohol abuse begins, the worse and more profound the effects upon the brain and body. What might have begun as having just one drink in the company of friends can lead to many complications both mentally and physically. Stephen Stewart, Ph.D., consultant hepatologist and director of the Centre for Liver Disease at the Mater Hospital in Dublin, Ireland, spent 10 years away from Ireland while he was completing a doctorate in liver disease caused by alcohol abuse and performing liver transplants. He returned to Ireland in 2010 and was profoundly shocked by what he found.
Increasing numbers of young people were arriving at hospitals with life threatening illnesses related to alcohol abuse. “It used to be 60-year-old men, and now it is very commonly 30- and 40-year-old women, as well as those men,” Stewart told the Irish Independent. One person Stewart saw was an 18-year-old male. Another individual was 20-years-old and died from an alcohol-related liver disease. “We are seeing progressively more young to middle-aged people with end stage liver disease. They are coming in jaundiced, with cirrhosis and with bad addiction. Some of those are starting drinking very young in their life, in the mid-to-late teens.”
Complications from heavy drinking
Cirrhosis occurs when a significant amount of healthy liver tissue is replaced by scar tissue. The condition is irreversible. Historically, cirrhosis was seen in older patients; it takes a minimum of seven or eight years of heavy drinking for a person to develop symptoms of cirrhosis and Stewart is now treating men and women in their mid-20s for late-stage liver disease, which means patients began drinking in their early teen years. Cirrhosis symptoms include fluid retention in the legs, fatigue, yellowing of the skin and eyes, itching, profuse nosebleeds, bleeding from enlarged veins, weight loss, muscle wasting, stomach pain, frequent infections and confusion. There is also an increased risk of liver cancer.
Stewart says he spends much more time now than in 1999 treating people with life threatening alcohol-related problems. “These are the emergencies,” he told Alcohol Action Ireland. “That’s the 25- to 40-year-old group coming in with the end stage liver disease. When they come in, it’s complicated. They don’t just have one problem but four or five. They may be vomiting blood. They may have clotting problems. They may be septic. They have jaundice. They have ascites (fluid in the abdomen) and they spend a long period in our intensive care unit and use up a lot of financial resources and our expertise.”
In an average week Stewart sees people in their mid-teens with end-stage liver disease from heavy drinking of cheap, high-strength ciders and spirits which they had been doing since their early teens. He firmly believes that the availability of cheap, strong alcohol combined with sports sponsorship of alcohol is part of the problem. He reported that when British Columbia, Canada, increased the price of alcohol by 10 percent, alcohol attributable deaths were reduced by 31.72 percent.
Teen alcohol use in the United States
Teens who abuse alcohol might not be aware of the effects it can have on the body. Alcohol is the most frequently used drug by teens in the United States; half of junior high and high school students drink alcohol on a monthly basis. Nearly 8 percent of these teens report that they drink five or more alcoholic drinks consecutively (binge drinking), putting them at great risk for liver damage. Furthermore it can affect their mental health, increasing their risks for developing issues such as depression or anxiety or worsening pre-existing conditions.
Educating teens of the physical dangers of drinking can help prompt a teen to think twice before taking a drink. Alcohol use in teens can have some of the following effects:
Sovereign Health Rancho San Diego is a treatment center specifically for teens. We specialize in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, mental health disorders and behavioral problems. If you would like further information please call 866-615-7266 to speak with a member of our team.
Written by Veronica McNamara, Sovereign Health Group writer