Can Alcoholism Kill?

Last Updated: March 20, 2024

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Alcoholism causes a variety of life-threatening health risks. Learn more about the many potential dangers that alcohol abuse and addiction can create.

There are many different ways that alcohol abuse and addiction can lead to death. Alcohol1 itself is a toxic substance that can cause a lethal overdose, and long-term use can lead to many different life-threatening diseases.

Alcohol also impairs both judgment and ability simultaneously, significantly increasing the risk of fatal accidents. The danger doesn’t end when someone with alcoholism quits drinking, as alcohol causes some of the most dangerous withdrawal symptoms of any substance. In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can even lead to death. For these reasons, it’s important to find professional treatment when recovering from an alcohol addiction.

Alcohol-Related Deaths

Alcohol-related death statistics illustrate just how dangerous this substance can be. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism2 (NIAAA):

  • Alcohol is the third leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States.
  • Alcohol contributes to 18.5% of ER visits, and the number of alcohol-related ER visits increases by 210,000 each year.
  • Over 22% of fatal prescription drug overdoses involved alcohol.
  • An estimated 95,000 Americans die each year from alcohol-related causes.
  • Around 28% of driving fatalities are alcohol-related.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that3 alcohol results in over 1,700 deaths and over 50,000 years of life lost each year in New Jersey alone.

How Alcohol Can Kill You

There are three primary ways that alcohol can kill you. Death can be directly related to a single episode of alcohol use, either by alcohol poisoning or by an accident caused by intoxication. Alcohol can also kill you over the long term by creating a wide variety of health problems. Finally, alcohol can be fatal when you stop using it because it can cause life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning4 occurs when you use too much alcohol in a single episode of drinking. Alcohol affects you by acting on GABA receptors5 in the brain. At low doses, this causes you to feel “buzzed.” At higher doses, however, it can affect critical functions of the body that are necessary to sustain life. When too much alcohol is used, it can lead to seizures, coma and eventual death.

Alcohol-Related Accidents

Drunk driving accidents kill 29 people6 each day, but drunk driving is not the only type of alcohol-related accident. Alcohol is also a factor7 in:

  • 30% of suicides
  • 40% of burns
  • 40% of crashes
  • 50% of homicides
  • 50% of drownings
  • 60% of falls

Alcoholic Liver Disease

Your liver plays an essential role in many important biological functions, including:

  • Helping your blood to clot
  • Removing toxins from your blood
  • Keeping enough water in your blood
  • Creating energy for your cells
  • Helping with digestion

Increased Risk for Heart Disease

Alcohol has several potentially negative impacts on heart health9. While the ways that alcohol affects the heart are quite complex, it can ultimately lead to:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Heart attacks
  • Strokes
  • Arterial disease
  • Cardiomyopathy

Increased Risk for Cancer

Alcohol is a known carcinogen10 — a substance that induces the development of cancer. Some of the most common types of cancer caused by alcoholism11 include:

  • Head and neck cancer
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Liver cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer

Withdrawal Complications

Alcohol withdrawal is one of the most dangerous types of withdrawal12 someone can go through. About 10% of patients withdrawing from alcohol will experience complications, and some of these complications can have up to a 25% fatality rate.

During alcohol withdrawal, the GABA receptors that are used to being chronically suppressed become overactive, creating a risk of seizures, psychosis and an alcohol-specific condition called delirium tremens13.

Related Topic: Is Alcohol a Drug?


Can an alcoholic die suddenly?

Alcoholism can cause you to suddenly die through alcohol poisoning or an alcohol-related accident. Some of the heart complications that alcohol causes can also cause death to suddenly occur.

How long can you survive as an alcoholic?

The effects that alcohol has on someone’s lifespan are unpredictable and highly specific to each individual. However, studies show14 that the lifespan of someone with alcohol use disorder is a staggering 24 to 28 years shorter than average.

Find Help for Alcohol Addiction

Because alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, those who are more at risk for severe symptoms should seek professional help when quitting alcohol.

If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper can help you overcome withdrawal and begin the recovery journey. Contact us today to learn more about treatment programs that can work well for your situation.


  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Alcohol.” MedlinePlus, October 26, 2021. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” June 2021. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  3. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Prevention Status Report.” 2013. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  4. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding the Dangers of Alcohol Overdose.” May 2021. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  5. Olsen, Richard W.; DeLorey, Timothy M. “GABA Receptor Physiology and Pharmacology.” Basic Neurochemistry: Molecular, Cellular and Medical Aspects, 1999. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Impaired Driving: Get the Facts.” August 24, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  7. National Institute on Aging. “Facts About Aging and Alcohol.” May 16, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  8. U.K. National Health Service. “Alcohol-related liver disease.” August 10, 2018. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  9. Piano, Mariann R. “Alcohol’s Effects on the Cardiovascular System.” Alcohol Research, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  10. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcoholic Beverage Consumption.” 2010. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  11. National Cancer Institute. “Alcohol and Cancer Risk.” July 14, 2021. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  12. Trevisan, Louis A.; Boutros, Nashaat; & et al. “Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal.” Alcohol Health & Research World, 1998. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  13. Toohey, Shannon. “Delirium Tremens (DTs).” August 4, 2021. Accessed December 8, 2021.
  14. Westman, J., Wahlbeck, K., et al. “Mortality and life expectancy of people […], Finland and Sweden.” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, April 2015. Accessed December 8, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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