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The Risk of Esophagus Damage from Alcohol

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

January 30, 2024

Table of Contents

Damage to esophagus from alcohol might not get as much attention as liver damage, but alcohol esophagus damage is a real threat for those who abuse alcohol. The esophagus is part of the gastrointestinal tract (digestive system). This guide outlines the various forms of esophagus damage from alcohol and shows you how to connect with evidence-based alcohol addiction treatment near you.

What Does Alcohol Do to Your Esophagus?

How does alcohol affect the esophagus, then? Alcohol abuse can lead to a range of esophageal issues, each with its own set of complications. Esophagus damage from drinking can manifest in the following ways:

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  • Heartburn: Excessive alcohol consumption can weaken the lower esophageal sphincter, the muscle that prevents stomach contents from flowing back into the esophagus, leading to heartburn.
  • Salivary gland damage: Alcohol disrupts the natural acid-base balance, potentially damaging the salivary glands and altering saliva production.
  • Mouth and tongue inflammation: Alcohol’s impact on mucus membranes can cause inflammation in the mouth and tongue due to increased exposure to irritants.
  • Barrett’s esophagus: Chronic exposure to a highly acidic environment can damage the esophageal lining. This condition can lead to the development of abnormal cells, increasing the risk of cancer.
  • Esophageal stricture: Damage to the esophageal lining from alcohol abuse can cause the esophagus to narrow, making swallowing difficult.
  • Mallory-Weiss syndrome: Characterized by tears at the junction between the stomach and esophagus, this condition can lead to a damaged esophagus from alcohol and uncontrollable bleeding.
  • Esophageal varices: This serious condition involves bleeding from dilated veins in the esophagus and stomach, often related to liver disease exacerbated by chronic alcohol use.

Can Alcohol Cause Esophagitis?

Alcohol can be a contributing factor to the development of esophagitis, an inflammation of the esophagus. Esophagitis from drinking is one of the most common variants. Here’s how alcohol can lead to this condition:

  • Irritation of the esophageal lining: Alcohol, especially when consumed in excessive amounts, can irritate and inflame the lining of the esophagus. This irritation can lead to esophagitis, sometimes informally known as alcoholism esophagus.
  • Weakening of the LES (lower esophageal sphincter): Alcohol has been known to weaken the LES, the valve that prevents stomach acids from entering the esophagus. A weakened LES can allow acid to reflux into the esophagus, causing inflammation and esophagitis.
  • Increase in stomach acid: Alcohol can stimulate the stomach to produce more acid. This excess acid may then flow back into the esophagus, contributing to inflammation and the development of esophagitis.
  • Direct chemical injury: Alcohol and its metabolites, like acetaldehyde, can directly damage the mucosal lining of the esophagus, provoking inflammation.
  • Compounding effect with other risk factors: In individuals who already have risk factors for esophagitis, such as existing gastrointestinal conditions or the use of certain medications, alcohol can exacerbate the risk of severe alcoholic esophagitis symptoms.

While moderate alcohol consumption may not lead to esophagitis in most individuals, those with heavy or chronic alcohol use are at a higher risk. Reducing alcohol intake, along with other lifestyle modifications, can be an effective way to prevent or reduce the severity of esophagitis. If you suspect that you have symptoms of esophagitis, consult a healthcare professional for diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

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Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on The Esophagus

Long-term effects of alcohol on the esophagus may include:

  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease)
  • Esophageal cancer and aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency
  • Impact of vomiting from heavy drinking

GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) 

The relationship between alcohol and GERD is well-established. GERD occurs when stomach acid frequently flows back into the esophagus. Studies show that alcohol consumption, particularly in early adulthood, can lead to the development of reflux esophagitis. Alcohol induces esophagitis by relaxing the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscle that acts as a valve between the esophagus and stomach. When this muscle relaxes, it allows the acidic contents of the stomach to flow back up into the esophagus, potentially damaging its lining. This is similar to the throat irritation or pain experienced after vomiting. Spirits, in particular, can directly damage the esophagus. Without treatment for alcohol addiction, individuals are at increased risk of experiencing these issues, along with other health problems affecting the liver, kidneys, and heart.

Esophageal cancer and aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency

Research suggests that a deficiency in aldehyde dehydrogenase, an enzyme responsible for metabolizing carcinogens like acetaldehyde, can heighten the risk of esophageal cancer. Acetaldehyde is not only a byproduct of alcohol metabolism but is also naturally present in some foods and cigarette smoke. Those with this enzyme deficiency may experience palpitations, nausea, and facial redness after consuming alcohol. If left unaddressed, this deficiency significantly increases the risk of developing cancer.

Impact of vomiting from heavy drinking

Frequent heavy drinking often leads to nausea and vomiting, which can severely irritate and harm the esophagus. Just as stomach flu or a virus can cause discomfort in the throat due to vomiting, alcohol irritates the stomach lining, leading to acid build-up and subsequent nausea. Repeated episodes of heavy drinking followed by vomiting can cause significant damage to the esophageal lining.

Acid Reflux from Alcohol

There is a strong correlation between alcohol consumption, particularly heavy drinking, and acid reflux. Acid reflux, a digestive disorder, occurs when stomach acid or bile agitates the lining of the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach). The upward flow of acid can cause burning and irritation in the esophageal lining, leading to swallowing difficulties. Acid reflux alcohol is especially prevalent in those who already suffer from acid reflux or similar digestive issues.

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Get Treatment for Alcohol Addiction at Renaissance Recovery

Alcohol affects the body and mind. We can help you move beyond alcohol addiction at Renaissance Recovery in Southern California. If you are alcohol-dependent, we can connect you with reputable detox facilities throughout California, enabling you to address the issue of physical dependence and prepare yourself for outpatient treatment at our rehab facility in Huntington Beach, CA.

Our outpatient and intensive outpatient programs enable you to remain anchored to your everyday obligations while engaging with evidence-based addiction treatment at an appropriate level of intensity.

Due to the unique nature of all addictions, treatment at Renaissance is highly personalized. Therapies available include:

To start embracing life alcohol-free, call 866.330.9449 for immediate assistance.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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