As our national day of binge drinking, aka St Patrick’s Day, rolls around, the Irish medical community is warning about the serious health impacts of excessive alcohol consumption.
While St Patrick’s Day is a great day of celebration for young and old, alcohol has long played a central role in celebrations. Every year there are scenes of extreme drunkenness in the media and a spike in attendances at emergency departments (EDs) due to heavy drinking during our national holiday.
Irish research estimates that between 20% and 50% of all presentations to EDs in Ireland are alcohol related, with the figure rising to over 75% at peak periods like the weekend or public holidays like St Patrick’s Day. Common drink-related ED attendances involve broken bones, cuts, bruises, blackouts and facial injuries, as well as alcohol poisoning and road traffic accidents.
“About three in four injuries that we see on Friday and Saturday nights and other peak times are caused by alcohol, and 25% of all traumatic brain injuries have alcohol as a factor. Alcohol can affect any part of the body; the heart, the respiratory system, the stomach, liver, and blood system as well as psychological problems so we see all sorts of serious problems caused by heavy drinking,” commented Dr James Gray, Consultant in Emergency Medicine, Tallaght Hospital.
He said people between the age of 15 to 30 are the most common age group to attend EDs across Ireland with alcohol related injuries or acute medical crises so the message about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption is not getting through.
And it’s not just about trips to EDs. The long-term health impacts of excessive alcohol consumption are frightening. Alcohol is ranked as the eighth leading cause of death globally and is a causal factor in more than sixty major types of diseases and injuries.
GPs in particular see the entire medical spectrum of the consequences of unsafe drinking every day, confirmed Dr Darach Ó’Ciardha, a GP based in Dublin and spokesperson for the Irish College of General Practitioners.
Common medical problems seen in general practice caused by heavy drinking include liver inflammation, stomach problems, chronic gastritis, nausea, jaundice and flu-like symptoms. Long-term health problems include heart issues, obesity, liver cirrhosis and failure, while a number of cancers have strong links to excessive alcohol consumption.
As well as witnessing serious physical illness, GPs see the psychological scars and family disruption caused by the misuse of alcohol, he added.
“There are many mental health consequences as well. Alcohol can cause anxiety, low mood or depression, and it can also be used to mask problems like anxiety or underlying mental health conditions and prevent the user from seeking help. It can also lead to risky behaviour where people would take other drugs they wouldn’t normally or engage in unsafe sexual practices. Then of course there is alcohol’s link to suicidal behaviour,” Dr Ó’Ciardha explained.
People often think that it is only very old long-term alcoholics that die from alcoholic liver disease but that is not the case anymore due to our excessive binge drinking culture. Data from St Vincent’s University Hospital Dublin shows there was a whopping 335% increase in admissions of patients with alcoholic liver disease between 1995 and 2010, and 14,000 people were admitted to the hospital for the treatment of alcohol dependence in 2011. Deaths related to cirrhosis of the liver doubled across Ireland between 1994 and 2008, and more recently the age of those presenting is younger than ever before.
“We have seen a huge increase in alcoholic liver disease in the last ten years, particularly in younger people. Twenty years ago alcoholic liver disease was primarily a disease of males in their fifties but there has been an overwhelming increase in the number of females presenting with it, so much so that females now make up about 40% of these patients. I believe in another decade the numbers will be equal,” Dr Orla Crosbie, Consultant Hepatologist, Cork University Hospital said.
Dr Crosbie led a recent study on the drinking habits of Irish students that revealed their alcohol consumption is more influenced by the price of alcohol and income compared to the long-term health consequences of excessive alcohol consumption.
Last year the HSE published a report entitled ‘Alcohol’s harm to others in Ireland‘, which examined the damage from alcohol to people other than the drinker in three Irish settings – the general population, the workplace and children in families.
The report found that almost 30% of the general Irish population reported experiencing at least one or more negative consequences as a result of someone else’s drinking such as family problems, passenger with a drunk driver, physical assaults, property vandalised and money problems.
Author of the report Dr Ann Hope, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Trinity College Dublin, said the findings showed that alcohol related harm has not reduced over the last two decades, despite our increased knowledge about the consequences. In fact health-related harm has continued to increase, particularly in younger people, and drinkers are ignoring the risks of developing long-term chronic conditions caused by excessive alcohol use.
So think before you drink to excess this St Patrick’s Day. The Alcohol Forum has produced an information poster containing practical advice and safety tips, to raise awareness of the importance of staying safe while enjoying our national holiday.
Before You Head Out
- Eat something: Try to eat a big carbohydrate meal like pasta or potatoes. The ‘soakage’ will help slow down the rate that alcohol reaches your body.
- Skip the ‘pre – drinking’: lots of people drink at home or in a friend’s house before they go out. While this saves some money, it’s much harder to keep track of your drinking since measures will be larger and you are more likely to binge.
- Start later: if you know it’s going to be a long, late night, arrive at the last possible minute. That’s one way to limit how much you take on board on a night out.
- Get home safely: pre-book your taxi or arrange for someone to collect you. Never ever drink and drive.